Skiing expands teen's horizons

February 02, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

Editor's note: The Herald-Mail will be tracking Nick's progress in his next two lessons.

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- Snowflakes linger in the air over the Whitetail Mountain ski slope when a 17-year-old in a red jacket starts to come into view.

He falters slightly and loses his balance a couple of times on this, his last run of the morning, but the stumbles don't diminish a mother's pride.

"That was fantastic, Nick!" Wendy Johnston exclaims.

Although the physical feat of Nick's snowboarding impresses his mother, she is more grateful that he has found adults in whom he trusts and that he follows basic instructions. He packed his lunch and a bag of skiing gear the night before his third lesson.


These things, Johnston says, are very big accomplishments in the life of Nick Moore, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

His mother says he talks only in brief intervals and answers "yes" to almost every question. He usually won't smile when he's happy or correct himself when he misspeaks. He has a history of running off and struggles with making eye contact.

Yet, Nick has mustered the confidence to put on a snowboard, get on a chairlift and criss-cross a mountain that has picture-perfect views his mother says he'd never experience otherwise. Johnston recently put on skis for the first time in several decades and joined her son on the slopes.

"This is the most fun we've had in our life together," she said.

Johnston heard about the Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports program through a respite care organization. The Warrenton, Va., resident enrolled her son in a Friday time slot hosted by program director Bill Dietrich and volunteer instructors.

Nick's first week was spent on the resort's small hill and beginners' chairlift, which he called an "airplane swing." The second week, he tried the real slopes, something that prompted such excitement from his mother that she grabbed her cell phone and figured out the video recording function for the first time.

Last Friday, he mastered the movements needed to disembark from the chairlift and practiced maneuvering down the mountain.

Johnston praised what she called Dietrich's "secret formula for success," which involves patience, love and "when in doubt, add more love." The instructors have learned to "show, not tell" with the autistic students.

Dietrich formed his nonprofit organization in August 2007 to benefit the physically and mentally disabled. He currently has 20 active instructors and 40 students.

By Sunday, the Two Top adaptive program had already provided more lessons than in its entire 2007-08 season, Dietrich said. Whitetail Resort had an adaptive program that lost momentum over the years before the new nonprofit organization got involved and better opened the slopes to wheelchair-bound individuals, he said.

"I'm hoping to develop a summer program here with golfing," Dietrich said, saying he'd also like to involve fly-fishing, tennis and kayaking.

Dietrich sees his students not as disabled people, but as skiers, Johnston said.

"This ski school is exactly how the world should be for these kids," she said.

To learn more:

Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation

717-328-9400, ext. 3582

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