Finding hope in horizons

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— Aimee sat on a bench Saturday showing signs of frustration and exuberance from all the cameras, people and attention given to her by family and friends.

She seemed tangled in a web of her own fingers, but screamed with delight as family members called out to her, "Aimee, look at the camera. Aimee, look at your sister."

For seven consecutive Saturdays during the ski season, Aimee sits on the bench to meet a group of other developmentally disabled people and volunteers outside the Kid's Vacation Center to suit up for a day of skiing at Mount Werner.

Skiing every Saturday only is one avenue of opportunism of Horizons Specialized Services, a non-profit organization providing services to developmentally disabled people in five Colorado counties. Horizons offers therapy, community integrated employment, preschool, support services, workshops and conferences.

Every Saturday, except tomorrow due to president's weekend, a group of 61 volunteers and 29 clients ski the mountain from 2-4 p.m.

Lisa Cutcheon, volunteer coordinator for Horizons, said the goal of the organization is to see that the clients are doing better than they were last year, maybe ski a run they've been afraid of in the past.

"Now our clients have the opportunity to enjoy the mountain," Cutcheon said. "Let's all enjoy the mountain."

Horizons, founded in 1973 by Chris Collins, gives assistance to children ages 0-5 and adults 21 and older who have developmental disabilities. Horizons' goal is for these people to reach their potential in the least restrictive environment possible.

But when Collins started the program, it was geared more toward a Special Olympics local organization. At that time, Collins had six volunteers and clients. When Liz Leipold took over the ski program in 1977, she increased the amount of volunteers to the number that it is today.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. gives clients and volunteers a free day ski pass to the mountain and SportStalker donates adaptive equipment.

Volunteers spend a weekend learning about developmental disabilities, the special needs of certain clients and the body mechanics. After the classroom discourse, volunteers spend time during preseason on the slopes training with bi-skis and tethers.

Tethers are leather straps that hook to ski boots or the tips of skis to balance the dependence and independence of a client skier.

"It's a 'learn as you go' process," said Sally Claassen, Horizons volunteer and former president of the board. "We have clients who are fairly independent to those who have to sit in a sled."

Claassen also is one of Aimee's volunteers and said she admires Aimee's courage and holds her skiing abilities in high regard.

"She gets really excited, and like most of us, she also gets really scared," Claassen said. "But when we fall down, we both laugh and she gets over it and gets up again."

Cutcheon said another organization takes over for persons with developmental disabilities when they reach the school age, but clients may reapply when they graduate from school.

The commitment of volunteers and the numbers that show up every Saturday is tremendous, Cutcheon said. Although the number of clients stays the same, volunteers are always increasing.

"Most of the volunteers are recruited by word of mouth. We've built a really good partnership," Cutcheon said of the overwhelming generosity and support of the volunteers.

Side by side every Saturday, Claassen and Aimee ski down Why Not with skis in "power wedge" position. Claassen said it's important for volunteers and clients to be paired through the whole season to create a trusting friendship.

Claassen said she became involved with Horizons by word of mouth, when a partner recommended that she give it a try.

"I love being in direct contact with clients versus sitting in an office," Claassen said. "It's great to get to know a developmentally disabled person as a person, not as a label."

People with developmental disabilities include those who manifested a disability before age 22, and is attributable to mental retardation or related conditions, such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism or other impaired neurological conditions.

With four other programs in Grand, Jackson, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, Horizons is one of 20 community-centered boards designated by the Division for Developmental Disabilities.

The board of directors, comprised of local professionals, parents, and consumers, is made up of 12 people representing the five Colorado counties. Funding for Horizons comes from federal, state and local sources, with primary funding from the Colorado Department of Institutions, Developmental Disabilities Services.

Cutcheon said the future of Horizons and its programs rests in the hands of the volunteers because the organization could not exist without them.

"As a community, we'd like to see a more all-inclusive adaptive program," Cutcheon said.

Cutcheon said although the program is not yet set up for every client to have a counselor, Horizons does provide that service.

"I work with a lot of people with big hearts," Cutcheon said. "You really feel like you're making a difference in one individual's life."

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