Learning to ski is hard enough. Learning to ski when you have a disability may seem almost insurmountable.
It’s not just the physical challenge of getting the skis on, getting up the lift, learning to balance, staying focused, multi-tasking and so on, but also getting over the mental challenges of fear and the unknown.
That’s why the Ramona High School’s Adaptive Physical Education Program’s annual ski trip is considered so remarkable. Just talking with coordinator and longtime adaptive physical education teacher and advocate Connie Halfaker is inspiring; one can imagine what it must have been like to be at the bottom of that mountain when her students and their instructors soared down.
“I have never seen a smile that was that big for that long,” said the proud Halfaker.
For the fifth consecutive year, Halfaker and fellow teacher Dan Marshall have taken their severely handicapped classes to the United States Adaptive Recreation Center at Big Bear Resort for a day in the snow. They do so without parents, only fellow teachers and aides and with the ongoing support of RUSD staff such as Ramona High Principal Tony Newman and Eileen Highley, director of pupil services for the district.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to be independent from their families.” said Halfaker. “They don’t often have that experience because of the extra care they need, but this is a chance to give them time away like most high schoolers who don’t go everywhere with their parents. This shows my students it is a possibility. It also shows our families they can ski together,” she said.
For $60, students are given lift tickets, one-on-one assistants and their choice of equipment. They are in skis, snowboards or sleds. The district provides the chartered bus. This year, 18 students attended, many for the first time.
“It’s just like every other physical experience I prepare my kids for,” said Halfaker. “We prepare them very well. Originally, when we first went, we showed them pictures, practiced with some of the equipment and talked about it a lot. Now that we have been doing it for several years, many of them are return students and they help with the new students.”
She tells the story of one of her students she has been working with since he was in preschool.
“He was not going to do it,” said Halfaker. “He laid in the snow, he threw a fit, he tried to bargain. He had the ability and the balance, he just didn’t want to go, but finally we got him on the chair lift and down he came. After that, he wanted to do it again and again. When we had to break for lunch, he didn’t want to and, for the first time since I have known him, he didn’t finish his lunch he was so excited. He always finishes his lunch. He just wanted to get back out there. It was fantastic.”
Halfaker is committed to doing activities such as this. It isn’t the only outdoor activity the students do. They have been tent camping together and do adventure camps throughout the summer.
Her next goal is to take them on a rafting trip. She has been preparing her students for that for the past three years.
“We start with a successful group and we research and prep for a couple years,” she said. “We learn paddle commands and even bump them out of the raft with life jackets. You should see the expression on their faces. But, this is the heart and soul of what we do. We want them to have a more full life like everybody else. That’s my job.”
She hopes the continued exposure will give the students an expanded vision of ‘I can do this.’
“When you get them on skis they think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do this. There’s life out there for me,’” she said. “Then, they will hopefully get out there and participate. For example, San Diego Parks and Recreation has a fully inclusive program where the students bike from Balboa to Petco Park, they have kayaking on the bay, anything you can imagine. I want my students to have that experience within our society.”
While listening to Halfaker describe her job, her love of what she does is obvious.
“Every day I say, ‘Yes! I get to go back and play!’ My heart is so full from what my students can accomplish, no matter what their physical challenge is,” she said. “It’s a gift they give me every day, when they choose to grow.”
For more about the ski school on Bear Mountain, visit www.usarc.org/.