ARISE & Ski Teaches Skill, Boosts Confidence

Program offers lessons to anyone with a disability, regardless of age

By Mary Beth Roach

ARISE & Sky instructor helping Trevor Wallen of Manlius learn to ski. Since it started in 1996, ARISE & Ski has given hundreds of participants the opportunity to enjoy the winter season.

Through the ARISE & Ski adaptive ski program, Mason and Trevor Wallen, brothers who are on the autism spectrum, have not only learned to ski, but they have also gained a greater sense of confidence.

Their mom, Agatha Wallen, said for Mason, 16, and Trevor, 14, participating in the program offered a unique experience.

“It’s a lot of growth, and it’s not just growth in skiing. It’s growth in confidence. There’s a community of people, people who are there volunteering their time to actually assist them and get to know them,” she said. The instructors, she added, gear the lessons to each of her sons’ needs.

It has also enabled Agatha, and her husband, Jason, both avid skiers, to create a family activity with their sons.

The Wallen brothers, of Manlius, are just two of several dozen individuals who take part in the program each season, which is a partnership between ARISE, a Syracuse-based organization that advocates for people with disabilities, and SkiCNY, which serves as host.

The two-hour lessons, in both skiing and snowboarding, are offered on six weekends through January and February at Labrador Mountain in Truxton.

There is a morning session and an afternoon session each day. The six-week session is $250.

The key is that these lessons are adaptive and that anyone with a disability regardless of age can participate, according to Mary Schwanke, manager of the respite and family support services with ARISE.

At the first lesson, participants are evaluated to determine their level and equipment needs. The gear is provided by ARISE and SkiCNY. The lessons are provided by ARISE’s educational staff, who are certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and have special training in adaptive skiing. They are assisted by a team of volunteers, who are experienced skiers, and receive additional training.

Helping a participant down the hill, the volunteers, for example, may hold either end of a long pole, with the skier in the middle. Other participants can use the sit-ski equipment, in which the skier sits in a specially-equipped chair and is guided down the mountain with the help of the volunteers and staff.

Because the participants are matched with volunteer instructors, the number of people that ARISE can accept into the program is based on how many volunteers they have. For example, Schwanke said, last year they had 81 applications, but they could only take 43 skiers. There were 82 volunteers last year.  Pre-COVID, Schwanke said, those numbers were closer to 120.

Participants apply for spots in the program through ARISE’s website — — during late fall, so the program is full at this time for the 2024 season.

Those interested in volunteering can also find applications on the ARISE website. They must be experienced skiers. They will receive annual training both on and off the mountain. Off-the-mountain training takes place on a weekend in December. They would only need to attend one day, but the training is offered both Saturday and Sunday, Schwanke said. On-hill training needs to be completed when the mountain is open for skiing, so that can vary from year to year.

Like Mason and Trevor, many of the participants gain a greater sense of confidence.

“We have had a lot of participants that have learned how to ski so well that they are now a volunteer for us, and they’re on the mountain teaching other people how to ski,” Schwanke said.

But there’s more — there’s a feeling of independence, she said.

Since it started in 1996, ARISE & Ski has given hundreds of participants the opportunity to enjoy the winter season with others and experience the exhilaration and freedom that can come with skiing.

“When you’re on the mountain flying down the hill with other skiers — yes, you’re using a special piece of equipment — but you’re still going at the same speed as everyone else,” Schwanke said. “We have a lot of people that say, ‘I have a need for speed and ARISE & Ski helps me do that.’”