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Snowmass adapts for disabled veterans

By Jeff Bowen, courtesy VA

It takes a village, and then some, to run the largest adaptive skiing and winter sports clinic in the world each year.

For the past 10 years, Snowmass Village, Colo., a resort town nine miles from Aspen, has been the site of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. This year’s clinic was held in late March.

Begun 25 years ago with 80 veterans, today’s event involves 400 veterans and about 800 volunteers who spend a week in Snowmass Village. Veterans range in age from 18 to their mid-80s, and they all have serious disabilities: spinal cord injuries, amputations, visual impairments and neurological damage among them. Some 220 veterans are in wheelchairs.

Skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling are the focus of the week, but the group also takes scuba lessons, goes fly fishing and visits a shooting range.

Those close to the event marvel at the clinic’s ability to build confidence and self-esteem as veterans realize their disabilities do not prevent them from traveling and participating in sports.

But the event is also an case study in how a small community rises to a monumental occasion.

“The town goes out of its way to adapt the conference facilities, lodging and mall for us,” said Sandy Trombetta, the clinic’s director and founder. “It all shows what people can do when they get a chance to do something good.”

Among the most involved is the host hotel, the Silvertree Hotel, Lodge and Conference Center. Participants stay there and in the adjacent Wildwood property.

“Our event is probably hardest on the hotel,” said Trombetta, a trained recreational therapist and certified ski instructor who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “With a group of 400, with 220 in wheelchairs, there is no way any hotel is going to have that many adaptive rooms.”

The hotel makes modifications. “What they do primarily, and it helps us a lot, is they take the doors off the bathrooms,” said Trombetta. In some cases, beds are also lowered.

Allison Campbell, the Silvertree’s director of conference services and catering, likens preparations for the week to building a city within the hotel as organizers set up ramps, lifts and communications.

Prior to the event, Trombetta arranges for his medical team to meet with hotel staff and talk with them about issues that members of the group might have such as disposal of medical supplies like needles and problems with catheters.

The hotel staff enthusiastically pitches in. One chef chooses to  work triple shifts to ensure that all of the group’s meals are flawless.

“I think I can speak for the entire staff when I say  it’s our No. 1 favorite group,” said Campbell.
Another key partner in the production is SkyWest Airlines, which operates the United Express flights that bring the veterans to Aspen. Many attendees send extra medical and athletic equipment ahead of time and the airline works to make sure the early shipments are taken to the hotel.

Instead of having the veterans pick up their bags at the terminal’s baggage claim, the airline, working with the hotel, trucks all of the luggage to the hotel and sets up a baggage claim in a conference room. It stations SkyWest staff there to make sure bags are delivered properly; in many cases, bags go directly to the attendee’s room.

“We want to make the trip as simple as possible,” said Wes  Horrocks, the airline’s representative.
The airline and the hotel employ the same system to return baggage to the airport when veterans depart. Special waiting areas in airports are also set up.

There are more than 800 volunteers for the event, including 200 adaptive ski and snowboard instructors who travel to Snowmass at their own expense. Among the local volunteers are more than 100 members of Elks Clubs in Aspen and other towns.

Elks members are on hand at the Aspen Airport to greet veterans and to see them off at week’s end.

Some travel to the Denver International Airport to help veterans who change planes there get from their arrival gate to their departure gate. Elks members also provide several meals during the week. At the shooting range, they prepare a feast of wild game. They cook a lunch of deep-fried turkey with homemade side dishes at the cross-country ski course.

Others in the community provide valuable assistance. One group, called the boot loaders, stand at the ski lift line for hours and help load veterans onto the ski lift so that ski instructors can save their energy for lessons on the slopes.

“Being a boot loader is probably the worst job we have, but we have a wait list for it,”  Trombetta said.

Businesses in the community have gotten into the act, building ramps and making adjustments so stores and restaurants are more accessible. After a decade, they have seen the benefits the clinic brings to Snowmass. It is the largest ski group that the resort hosts each year.

“This has created an awareness among those in the community,” said Trombetta. “They have seen the potential of this type of clientele. They have a better image of what people in a wheelchair can do.”