Blind students go cross-country skiing

MOUNT HOOD — Jackie Patching stepped off a school bus and paused, tentative when her feet slid on the snowy Teacup Lake Nordic Ski Area parking lot. The 16-year-old, who can see only shades of light, had come to Mount Hood to ski. She rocked slightly when a woman gently took her by the arm.

"Right this way," said Janet Tschanz, 65, one of 25 volunteers who'd come to help 14 students from Vancouver's Washington State School for the Blind go cross-country skiing.

"You're on your way now," Tschanz said as they walked together.

"Thank you," Patching said.

The trip was a fun outing for the students and a chance to learn a new skill. But it was more than that, too. It was part of the school's mission to prepare students to participate in all areas of life.

"When they leave here, we want them to be as independent as possible," said Adrienne Fernandez, the school's recreation and volunteer coordinator who was busy in the parking lot Tuesday morning introducing students and volunteers.

Decades ago, she said, people who were visually impaired were told about all the things they couldn't do.

"Granted, our students may not become brain surgeons," she said. "But there are so many things they can do. Studies have shown that only 30 percent of the blind and visually impaired go to college. Last year, 80 percent of our kids went to college."

So along those lines, the school offers its 65 students lessons in skiing, golf, scuba diving and bike riding, via a tandem bike with a guide up front.

Once the volunteers and students were matched up, they hiked arm in arm through the woods toward a warming hut where they'd assemble before skiing on freshly groomed trails.

Student David Hammond, 19, came because he wants to go cross-country skiing with his father. He walked with Jordan Pratt, a 16-year-old volunteer from Portland's Grant High School. They walked in silence, feet crunching on the nearly 4 inches of new snow.

Hammond, who is blind, stopped and bent down. He grabbed some snow and lifted it to his cheek. He smiled, then knelt again to make a snowball.

"There's a tree behind you," Pratt said, helping turn Hammond around. "Now throw it."


"Good job," Pratt said.

This is the fourth year that Teacup has invited students from the school, said Ron Kikel, informational assistant at the U.S. Forest Service's Mount Hood Ranger District.

"We had just been doing snowshoeing with them," he said. "Someone suggested cross-country skiing last year, but we didn't know how they would catch on. They blossomed and took off. Every volunteer was blown away. These kids are tenacious."

Switching to cross-country upped the ante — and the fun, said Richard Fay, a member of the Teacup Lake Nordic Club. Trained instructors from three groups — the Teacup club, the Forest Service and the Oregon Nordic Club, Columbia Gorge Chapter — serve as guides, skiing at the students' pace and offering directions at corners.

"Some of these kids are totally blind," Fay said. "Some can't see forward but have some peripheral vision. Others see shadows.

"All of them are remarkable," he said. They believe there's nothing they can't do, and that makes them a joy to be around."

In the warming hut, Ruben Castenada, 14, sat with his red-tipped cane while a volunteer laced up his ski boots and then patted him on the knee.

"I'm ready," Castenada said.

The room buzzed with excitement.

"Hey, someone is going to get detention here," Fay said. The students couldn't see he was smiling.

Outside, the students stood with volunteers, who helped them into their skis.

"There is so much negativity in the world," said Fernandez, the school's recreation coordinator. "At this moment, you see the best in the world. You see the goodness in people."

And then they were off. The sound of laughter faded, and once more the woods were silent.

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