The sit-ski in action.
When a bright yellow school bus signed “Washington State School for the Blind” recently arrived in Teacup Nordic Center’s parking area on Highway 30 near Mount Hood with 30 students, they didn’t come to show what blind kids can’t do, but rather what they can.
Waiting for their arrival were 50 trained volunteer ski instructors from throughout the region eager to meet their new students.
Many of these youngsters are not only dealing with impaired vision, including total blindness, but have other health issues as well.
Youngsters like Ella Trout.
Ella is a lovely teenage girl who has lots of friends and like most teenagers wanted to go skiing with them. According to Ella’s mother, Karry Trout, Ella was diagnosed with an Optic Glioma at the age of eight months. It's a brain tumor that grows in the optic pathway, and by the time Ella was 18 months old she was totally blind.
The tumor impacted not only her sight, but her mobility and her mental development as well. But through it all, Ella has remained a happy girl who loves people.
When Adrienne Fernandez, the school's recreation and volunteer coordinator, told U.S. Forest Service employee Ron Kikel about Ella coming to the mountain to ski, I thought, “No way is she going to be able to slide down the mountain.” But I was also told about her burning desire to ski and I thought, “We will find a way to make it happen.”
So I sat down with a glass of wine and isolated each of her health issues. Blindness is not a problem, as every student we get from this school has vision issues. Mobility is more of problem, but I know that paraplegics go skiing using a sit-ski.
So I moved to the computer and searched for pictures of sit-skis. I printed a picture of one that I thought would work and took that picture to Joe Powell of Ed Powell’s Welding Service in The Dalles, located at 3001 E. Second Street.
Joe Powell is a master welder, and several months later he called and said the sit-ski was ready for Ella and the mountain.
On March 8, Ella’s school bus arrived at Teacup Nordic Center.
Ella exited the bus and was introduced to her sit-ski by Richard Fay and Shelly Hakanson, two of the key organizers of the ski lessons. She was swathed in blankets and snuggled into her new sit-ski by volunteers as she eagerly looking forward to her next adventure.
Ella was the first person to ever use this sit-ski and I was extremely nervous about how well it would work.
We have no ski lift at the center so the sit-ski would have to be pushed up the hill by two people without skis.
I thought that if we could go 500 yards each day of the event everyone would be happy.
Our enthusiastic pushers were Mike Pence and Leif Hovin; and the sit-ski was amazing.
So amazing, in fact, that I didn’t see Ella, Mike or Leif again until it was time to gather the kids and put them back on the bus.
Did I say it would make everyone happy if Ella went for 1,000 yards over the two days? Well, make that five or more miles!
And Mike and Leif were having so much fun that they would seldom let anyone else help being the power for the sit-ski.
That night the kids and the staff were treated to dinner and an interpretive educational presentation led by U.S. Forest and Fish and Wildlife personnel.
They talked about everything, from geology to pollinators to nest builders.
Towards the end of the second day it was snowing like crazy and I thought I was seeing things that were not there: Here was Ella’s mother Karry, sitting in the sit-ski, and Ella being the push power! It is not often that I tear up, but I did then. The final event of the visit are four big ski races, and Ella won hers.
This two-day event is free for the students. That includes their meals, ski equipment, volunteer ski instructors, the cots they sleep in — and now the sit-ski.
It has all been donated by good-hearted people whose only reward is knowing they have painted the mountain with thousands of smiles.