When Cammi Menager and Paul Squadrito founded the Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos seven years ago, there were no local sports programs for kids with developmental disabilities. Mountain Valley Developmental Services in Glenwood Springs had an adult sports team, explained Menager, but that was it.
Menager (pronounced men-a-JAY), who earned a masters in special education with an emphasis in autism from Oregon's Portland State, was a special ed teacher for Mountain BOCES at the time.
She said her students' favorite pastime was watching TV.
"Their peers were skiing, swimming and running track," she recalled. "And my students couldn't relate."
Menager, who lives in Glenwood Springs, contacted Special Olympics Colorado in 2005 to inquire about a local team. So did Squadrito, who had moved to Basalt from the Front Range and was looking for a Special Olympics team to coach.
"It made a lot of sense to pair us together," said Squadrito, who has been involved with Special Olympians since the early 1990s.
Squadrito is also an architect. He says his administrative and management skills are a good match for Menager's special education background.
"I think it's been a really good partnership and a good friendship we've developed over the years," he said.
The team began with five kids in January 2006. First, they came up with a name.
"The name had to show where we're from and who we are," explained Menager. New Castle team member Enrique Herrera suggested "ninos" because the kids were in middle school.
The Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos (RFMN) chose skiing as their first sport and practiced at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Fridays. That spring, RFMN went year-round with swimming and track and field events. The following year, team members began earning physical education credits at school for their participation.
But in 2008, the team came to a crossroads.
"As the kids got into high school, their parents wanted them to be in school on Fridays," Menager remembered. In other words, no more Friday practices, which meant no more Sunlight Mountain Resort.
"Sunlight's ability to accommodate us on weekends was difficult; they wanted the team to come up during the week," said Menager.
To keep RFMN going, Menager and Squadrito ventured upvalley. Snowmass Mountain was too big, said Menager. But Buttermilk was just right, thanks to the Aspen Skiing Co.
"They gave us passes and access to Buttermilk," she said, and it's been home to RFMN's Saturday morning winter practices ever since.
Today, 16 "ninos" swim at the Glenwood Springs Community Center or River Valley Ranch and run track and field in late spring. They bowl in New Castle in the fall and ski and snowshoe in winter.
Bowling gets the biggest turn-out.
"It's social and everybody likes it," said Menager.
The team competes at regional and state games where everybody brings home a medal or a ribbon.
Alex Bender, 19, has been with RFMN since the beginning and is the first team member to go to the Special Olympics World Games.
This year's games are in South Korea and began on Wednesday. Bender will compete in the giant slalom.
"Alex is a model for the team," said Menager. "But I consider all my kids to be champions."
Not all Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos, however, are "ninos" anymore, and older team members are coming to another crossroads.
The team is for school-aged youth, which for developmentally disabled kids means ages 8 to 21. Four original team members, including Enrique Herrera and Alex Bender, are now in their late teens or early 20s and this will be their last season with RFMN.
What happens next?
Squadrito wants to create a transition team, he said, "so that these athletes can still see us but transition into a program that would cater to the 21-to-early-30s age range."
He said there are other adults in the area who would also be eligible for this kind of team and he hopes to have it ready by next fall.
"Our athletes are really important to us," he said. "We want to give [them] as broad a spectrum of friendship as possible."
Both coaches are passionate about Special Olympics; Squadrito said the work has humbled him.
"I tend to get self-absorbed and start thinking that the end of the world is coming," he said. "If I hang out with the athletes for an hour or two, I realize there are more things to life than what I'm struggling with."
RFMN competes at this year's Special Olympics Colorado Western and Southeast Area Winter Games at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Feb. 22 and 23. Everyone is invited to attend.