Brightening the slopes

ORCA's winter recreation program helps people with disabilities

Posted: Monday, February 23, 2004

Niall Johnson went zooming down the Ptarmigan Hill on a snowboard a few Sundays ago at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

An outside observer couldn't tell Johnson is a person with developmental disabilities.

That's the beauty of Outdoor Recreation Community Access's program that has taught people ages 4 to 60 how to downhill ski and snowboard, program Manager Jennifer Bellman said. About 38 are enrolled this winter, she said.

"We use whatever we can to get the body to do whatever it needs to do," Bellman said.

People with disabilities learn how to physically ski before they understand the sport intellectually, she said. That is done by using physical aids to teach the practice of skiing and snowboarding. Some use a bi-ski that allows a skier to sit in a "bucket" on two skis. Others sit in a bucket on one ski or use a newer piece of equipment called a board buddy. It wraps around the waist allowing one or two trainers to hold onto the skier.

Johnson, 27, first used a bamboo stick when Bellman and other trainers taught him how to ski several years ago. But then Johnson's friend, John Magaloti, introduced him to snowboarding at a time when it was a new sport for the Special Olympics.

"It's good exercise," Johnson said with a broad smile.

Now Melvin Starr, 18, wants to start snowboarding because it's the "cool" sport, he said.

"I need to learn how to snowboard; I want to get back to it," said Starr, who has been downhill skiing for about five years.

He first learned in junior high school, where ORCA instructors helped him.

For parents such as Matt Jones of Juneau, the program brings some stress relief. His 15-year-old daughter, Chavi, snowboards and son, Andres, 15, skis.

"What makes the program is they (ORCA instructors) are warm, friendly, positive people," Jones said.

Bellman - one of the four instructors - has been with the program for 10 winters.

"It's fun," Bellman said, when asked why she's stayed with the program so long - about five years longer than the industry average.

"She's the ORCA lady," Starr said, patting her right arm.

After arriving in Alaska in 1988, Bellman worked for Challenge Alaska's ski program in Girdwood before coming to teach at the Juneau branch. Challenge Alaska is a recreation program for people with disabilities in Anchorage. The Juneau branch was turned into ORCA, part of SAIL Inc.

When Johnson is not snowboarding the slopes of Eaglecrest, he works as a part-time prep cook at Rainbow Foods. Starr attends the Transition Program through Juneau-Douglas High School that prepares young people for everyday living.

They both look forward to ORCA's annual ski-a-thon that raises funds to provide year-round recreation for people with disabilities. The event is March 27 at Eaglecrest. The person who collects the most pledges gets two round-trip tickets to any West Coast U.S. or Mexican destination with Alaska Airlines.

Johnson and Starr would head away from the snowbelt if they won, they said. Johnson wants to see his mother in Florida, while Starr would enjoy the Texas heat.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at

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