Making the impossible possible
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Julie Manning has happy memories of her childhood activities in Aspen: skiing, hiking, river-rafting.
But Manning – Julie Royer in her Aspen years – figures she wouldn’t get to create further memories of her oldest child engaging in such pastimes. Olivia Manning is autistic, with an extreme case of the condition. At 9, she is nonverbal and wears pull-ups, and just getting her to wear gloves – never mind putting on skis and hitting the slopes – can be just about impossible.
But in the summer of 2009, Manning, who lives in Seattle, spoke with Doug Gilstrap, a longtime ski instructor on Snowmass Mountain who ran a program called Extreme Sports Camp. She was impressed enough by the description of the program, designed exclusively for autistic children, that the next day, she and Olivia flew to Aspen. A week later, Olivia started the camp – which meant river-rafting, kayaking, water-skiing. Last winter, Olivia participated in a week of the skiing program.
“She’s doing the things I did when I grew up here. And I never, ever, ever imagined she’d do that,” the 40-year-old Manning said. “They get her to do things I never thought she’d do, and she does them with a smile on her face. It’s nice for me as a parent to know she’s doing something she’s enjoying.”
Gilstrap has worked with Challenge Aspen, which provides activities for physically disadvantaged people. He had also been a ski instructor for Billy Bernard, an Aspen boy with autism. In 2001, Gilstrap and Sallie Bernard, Billy’s mother, founded Extreme Sports Camp. The organization, a registered nonprofit headed by executive director Scott Dorman, has seen the number of participants skyrocket; Gilstrap says approximately 230 children will be enrolled in the programs – 12 weeks in the summer, five weeks in the winter, plus opportunities all winter long for private sessions – this year.
Gilstrap noted that tuition covers only about half the cost of operating the camps. Extreme Sports Camp is subsidized with private donations and with grants from groups such as the Snowmass Rotary.
Tonight, Kenichi is giving another financial boost. All food and sake at the Japanese restaurant will be 50 percent off; guests will be given a space on their bill to make a donation to Extreme Sports Camp. In addition, the wait staff will donate 10 percent of tonight’s tips to the organization, and that number will be matched by the restaurant.
Manning has tried other programs for Olivia.
“But when they hear she’s still in pull-ups and nonverbal, they hem and haw and say, ‘Well, you need to hire a nanny. Because autism is such its own special need. Their special needs are unique, different,'” said Manning, whose boyfriend, Bil Rieger, is an owner of Kenichi, and has developed a close relationship with Olivia.
Manning has enrolled Olivia in programs that cater to autistic children: “They do crafts, or bang on drums – boring. But we’ve put her in them because we need a break. She’s a 24/7 needs kid.”
The Extreme Sports Camp gives the family just what it needs. The activities thrill Olivia. Her mom gets peace of mind knowing that Olivia is shadowed throughout the day by someone assigned specifically to her. Not to be discounted is the fact that Olivia comes home from camp so worn out that she actually sleeps well – a challenge typical for autistic children, and specifically for Olivia.
“This wears them out,” Manning said, noting that a full ski day is followed by swimming at the Snowmass Recreation Center, where Olivia has become a favorite of the staff. “She sleeps. She doesn’t get that at home.”
The next problem to be solved is the gloves. Even the coaxing of the Extreme Sports Camp team isn’t enough to get Olivia to keep her gloves on, even while skiing.
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