A virtual shade of Ascendigo Blue event set for Saturday

Autism services organization touches many lives in and beyond the Roaring Fork Valley

Harper Lewis, right, helps with the grooming during a horseback riding session with Ascendigo Autism Services.

The Lewis family has certainly seen its share of challenges raising an autistic child, but one Roaring Fork Valley organization in particular has made all the difference.

So much that Frances Lewis, mother of 12-year-old Harper, is fully invested in the broader work of Carbondale-based Ascendigo Autism Services as a member of its board of directors.

Harper found support when she became school age, attending the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork near Carbondale, where staff worked hard to integrate her into the school setting with other students, Lewis said.

“The Waldorf School was really involved and put in strategies to work with her and keep her in the classroom,” Lewis said.

At the same time, as Harper got older, it was often “overwhelming” and “difficult,” in her mom’s words.

When she was 9, the family enrolled her in the Ascendigo Summer Camp on the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus, and Harper’s life changed.

“It was her first overnight experience, and kind of scary,” Lewis said. “But the enthusiasm, warmth and joy of the staff there was incredible. They really connected with Harper and got her to do things like rock climbing, horseback riding and going down the river in a raft that we’d never been able to do with her.

“She came back from camp calm, but excited. You could tell she felt good about herself, and it’s something I’m immensely grateful for,” Lewis said.

The two-week sessions for Harper also gave the rest of the family some time to be together and travel and do things in a way they couldn’t always do otherwise, she added.

It was a similar story for Nancy Carr from Denver, whose now 22-year-old adult son, Brendan, began going to Ascendigo’s Extreme Sports camps when he was 10.

“This organization has changed our entire family’s lives,” Carr said. “When Brendan started going to camp, he met some of the best friends of his life and they’re still his best friends today.

“I’ve lived in Colorado for 30 years, and Ascendigo is the only organization we found that specifically devoted its attention and focus to kids on the spectrum, which is very different from other types of disabilities,” she said. “When Brendan is out there on top of the mountain skiing with his friends, he’s happy as a clam.”

Brendan Carr on one of the adventure outings, sporting his Ascendigo Extreme Sports Camp t-shirt.

Ascendigo Blue fundraiser

As with other organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to the way Ascendigo carried out its multitude of programs for people of all ages on the autism spectrum.

That will be true as well with the organization’s flagship annual fundraiser this Saturday, Ascendigo Blue Aspen.

One aspect of the traditional President’s Day Weekend event will continue in person, though — the Vertical Blue ski day at Highlands ski area on Saturday.

“We will have people on the mountain in blue Ascendigo coats and an information tent at the base where we can talk to people about who we are and what we do, and have some fun give-aways,” said Julie Kaufman, director of development for Ascendigo.

The rest of the day will involve a virtual event, in place of the in-person gala event they’ve had in the past.

The event this year involves an online auction that’s been open since Tuesday. At 6 p.m. Saturday, Ascendigo will livestream a 30-minute promotional event, including parent testimonials, remarks from Ascendigo CEO Peter Bell, and the unveiling of Ascendigo’s mission film.

“Our Ascendigo Blue event has been a really important way for us to let the community know what we’re doing and what we’re all about, and to make new friends,” Kaufman said. “Not being able to do it this year in person is a little bit of a challenge, but we’ve worked hard to have as much exposure as possible.”

The auction itself is loaded with lots of the usual items, including getaway packages, Aspen ski passes, nights out, and more.

“It’s still a really good way for people to support us, if that’s the way they want to support us,” Kaufman said.

The traditional “paddle raise,” which separately raises money for Ascendigo’s scholarship fund, will be converted to a “text to give” during the livestream.

Bell pointed out that the scholarships help offset the cost of the summer camp program and other services for families with limited resources.

“To date, these scholarship funds have sent more than 100 children and adults with autism to our camps,” Bell said. “Proceeds from this year’s paddle raise will also help us complete an important update to the equipment we use for all of our outdoor recreation activities.”

Some of the scholarship funds from last year’s Ascendigo Blue event did not get used, since the regular camp did not happen due to COVID-19.

“So, we used some of the proceeds from (last) year’s paddle raise to update the equipment we use for our summer camp and adult programming, such as a new boat, river rafts, climbing ropes, PFDs and equine therapy materials,” Bell said.

Ascendigo employs about 60 people year-round, plus another 60 or so camp counselors and staff during the summer season, with an annual operating budget of $4 million.

In addition to its youth overnight camps, weekend day camps and therapy programs, Ascendigo also offers an Ascending to Adulthood (A2A) program for those nearing adulthood, and a variety of programs for adults with autism, including residential services and employment assistance.

Ascendigo is also moving forward with plans to develop its recently acquired 126-acre property in eastern Missouri Heights to accommodate its overnight camps and other outdoor programs.

The application has been submitted to the Garfield County Planning Department for a formal review and public hearings this spring. Read more about that project next week in the Post Independent.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.