Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Snapshot: Family Fun at Wendell State Forest

Meet the Harris Family! Steve and Lisa are the devoted parents of Nathan and Autumn. They reside in Greenfield, Massachusetts and came out for a day of winter fun at Wendell State Forest.

"Our son Nathan," says Lisa, "has autism and severe sensory issues, so we thought we'd just expose him and work up to making it fun for him and the family over time. The outcome was quite unexpectedly the best day that our family has had playing together as a real family unit."

"Not in my wildest dreams," she continues, "would I have thought we could have done anything on the ice as a group. However we were all able to get on the ice, sled skate, and play hockey together!!!! We had a great time! We were even able to have some rare family photos taken with all smiles! "

"Another activity I never thought we'd be able to do as a group was snowmobiling. Nathan enjoys all things motorized, so I thought we had a good shot at this. Once loaded and on the trails, I looked back to see everyone smiling and Nathan, looking with saucer-shaped eyes, putting his two little mittens together signing 'more'. "

Your family can enjoy winter fun in the outdoor too, in a supported recreation program if needed. DCR's Universal Access Program offers three dates in 2010 at Wendell State Forest: January 30, February 13, and March 13 from 11am - 3pm. Call All Out Adventures at 413-527-8980 to register for a day of fun that will include snowmobile rides, ice skating, sled hockey, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and kicksledding as conditions permit. Other outdoor winter programs will take place at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, but if you really want to snowmobile, plan on coming to Wendell!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Weston Ski Track Accommodations

The Weston Ski Track is located at 200 Park Road in Weston, near where I-90 and I-95 cross. It is the only cross country ski center in Massachusetts that makes its own snow! If you live in the greater Boston area, winter is ready made for you here, even if the rest of the landscape is snowless.

While cross country skiing is the main highlight on 2 kilometers of trails over moderate terrain, snowshoes as well as skis can be rented. Races and events occur regularly in January and February. It was at one such race that I learned the importance of accommodations for spectators.

In order to get a good view of the race finish, most people walk across the snow. There are no seats or sidelines designated for viewing off the snow. As I watched a race of youngsters during the annual classic Vasalop nordic ski event, I noticed an older man standing at a distance, reluctant or unable to traverse the white expanse. I grabbed a kicksled and approached him and his adult son. "Here," I offered, "Please use this to get closer!" They did so, and this gentleman was able to sit and view his grandson crossing the finish line.

As a result of this spontaneous moment, the Weston Ski Track now offers the use of kicksleds for just such accommodations. They also have an adult sit-ski available for skiers with lower body limitations who are able to ski on their own. For those needing more support to ski, sit-ski, snowshoe, or kicksled, DCR's Universal Access Program offers three programs at the Weston Ski Track this winter on Sundays: January 31, February 7, and February 14. Come on out and join the fun!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Disability Evaporates in Sled Hockey

One of my favorite things about sled hockey is that while chasing the puck people get so caught up in the game, disabilities fall to the wayside of awareness. I see and experience this in our Universal Access skating programs whenever a pickup game gets underway.

People with and without disabilities pile into ice skating sleds and learn to propel themselves with the two shortened hockey sticks. These sticks have picks on one end used to dig into the ice. Flip the stick to move the puck towards any make shift goal or hockey net. If this level of coordination or strength is not possible, a stroller bar handle can be inserted into the back of the sled for assistance, leaving the sled skater to fully attend to the puck if they are able. Those players who can engage in either level of play may find themselves forgetting about the cold too!

This is a great activity for kids, young adults, and families, but anyone can enjoy it. Come try it out this winter at Wendell State Forest, Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, or the Asiaf Arena in Brockton. Click here for more details!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Mental Health Through Skiing

We might have been any two women on cross country skis, but if you could hear our conversation, you would you would have witnessed the transformational power outdoor recreation can have in the lives of people with disabilities.

"I used to be incredibly phobic," offered Ginny, as we shushed through the soft snow. "The Universal Access Program has helped me so much. I couldn't have recovered anywhere near as much as I have without it. I've spent years in outpatient clinics. Would you believe I used to weigh 210 pounds?"

We skied along a frozen pond with a beaver lodge and entered the snow covered forest. She took in my look of amazement and continued. " A lot of people on medication are overweight. So much of it is depression you know? And the drugs. You can't feel your feelings or any drive to get out and do things. But one day, I came with a group to kayak. At first I was terrified. Then, I had a great time! I was so isolated in my life I couldn't make connections with people very well, until I started coming to Universal Access programs. I got to know the staff and soon was talking to more people than just those with psychiatric disabilities."

As we passed under towering white pines, Ginny freely shared her story. I realized I was getting a rare view into a life experience few people get to see unless it is their own. She spoke of her misdiagnosis as a child, how the adult stresses of making ends meet led to a clearer psychiatric diagnosis, followed by years of poor treatment in an over-medicated fog. Somehow the tranquil beauty of the forest with its blanket of snow offered her easy access through her story.

"I was fortunate to have my own car. I kept coming. The exercise felt so good. The fresh air. Everything. I tried cycling, hiking, winter activities....each time I struggled through being around more new people, yet there were always the familiar friendly staff and volunteers to help me. I got to know some of the other participants who came regularly. Some of us even talk on the phone now between programs. Gradually I acclimated to people. I still have trouble being in rooms with people talking loudly or in crowds."

I found common ground with Ginny in this last comment, and we skied silently down a series of curving hills. "I really love speed!", she continued when we caught up with each other. "It makes me feel so alive. The release of endorphins actually breaks through the flat line of my emotional life. My medications prevent me from feeling much range."

Ginny had moved beyond the limitations of others managing her disability and was clearly finding her own methods of blazing new trails. We stopped to admire some tracks where a bobcat had crossed the ski trail, then swapped wild animal stories all the way back to the lodge.

Still I wonder, for every Ginny finding a new way in life, how many people are still caught in the fog of medication? Who else out there has improved their mental health through recreation?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Power Soccer - A fun indoor option

What to do on the first Saturday of shotgun season for deer, when the woods are full of hunters? Sometimes you have to escape indoors! I took a trip with my partner Maribeth to Durham, NH to observe power soccer in action. We were in advance of the first snowstorm of the season, so our return ride home turned out to be an outdoor adventure of slow driving in snow and icy conditions, but it was worth it!

We arrived at the Wittmore Center on the University of New Hampshire Campus in time for a skills clinic, in which the Northeast Passage team, the Wildcats, were practicing their skills with the oversized soccer ball that is officially used in power soccer. Five team members in their power wheelchairs took turns at 3 stations. There was a goal shooting station, with 3 soccer balls placed at three shooting points per person. A slalom of seven orange cones ran the length of the basketball court, in which each person had to travel and tightly circle the cones without bumping them. The final station was an identical slalom that was navigated with the soccer ball in traditional weave around alternating cones. Watching this warmup activity gave us a good sense of each player's ball handling skills.

Before the skills clinic was over, the team from Mass Hospital School rolled in, also in blue uniform shirts. These two teams are the only ones in the area, so they have played before and, prior to this scrimmage game, they too warmed up by running through the 3 stations. We could see right away they had some killer players. As residents at their school, they have easy access to regular practice and play among their schoolmates, whereas NEP team members must travel independently to a gym to practice during a 12 week season twice a year.

Power soccer has been around for some twenty years, though it is new to me. The game has its own standards and rules. Two twenty minute halves are played with a ten minute break in between. Each team has 3 players, plus the goalie, on the court at any one time. Power chairs are fit with a plastic guard on the front end, which is used to protect the players' feet and aids in working the ball. For the rest of the official picture, visit

Disabilities represented on the power soccer court this day included cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. A mother of one of the players sitting behind us in the bleachers, told us that typically the players with MD were often quite calculating in their moves and the players with CP had more difficulty getting their bearings in the middle of the game. Yet as far as we could see, one of the most active players on the NEP team had CP. Though he moved his chair jerkily and was non-verbal, he had a clear grasp of the action, was a quick responder and played some great defense. Two young women on the Wildcat team showed definite prowess at being in the right place to turn the ball back towards their opponent's goal. One of these women alternated playing goalie with a young man who was prone to hamming it up with the audience while the action was happening on the opposite end of the court. They were a fun and likable team, but alas they were no match for the Mass Hospital School!

We marveled at one player, whom Maribeth dubbed "the Pele of power soccer", who was always in the right place at the right time to stop most attacks from the Wildcats. The female player of the MHS team was barracuda-like in her ability to sneak up and steal the ball. Another player was a veritable wall of defense all by himself. Their goalie saw less action on his end of the court. The final score was 5 to 2. Everyone got a medal and enjoyed the outing and the pizza party afterwards. We beat it back home just before dark.