SUN VALLEY — It’s difficult to sign with ski gloves covering your fingers.
But Kirsten Webster had it down to a T…and an A, and whatever other letters she needed to spell instructions with her fingers to deaf students involved with the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind.
“Pay attention,” she said as placed her open hands on both sides of her eyes as if she had blinders on, preventing her from looking right or left.
“Green light means ‘Go,’ and red light means ‘Stop,’ ” she signed as she prepared to lead 12-year-old Julieanna Torres and 10-year-old Natalie Benitez in a game designed to teach them to control their speed.
Webster was among several members of Higher Ground Sun Valley who took 11 deaf students from the school’s Adventure Club under their wing this past weekend as they showed them how to ski and snowboard on Sun Valley’s Dollar Mountain.
It was one of two four-day outings the club takes to Sun Valley each winter. And it has implications that stretch far beyond the techniques of learning to ski Old Bowl on Dollar Mountain.
“Our elementary school-aged children don’t have a lot of opportunity to interact with their peers or participate in social activities,” said Heather Burgen, a teacher at ISDB and co-director of the Adventure Club. “Most of them come to school each day and go home at night. Often they’re isolated, as their families don’t sign and no one in their communities signs.”
“This builds a lot of independence in the children,” added Webster, a former recreational therapist for a school for the deaf. “They learn to be responsible for taking care of things. For instance, they pack their bags each day with snacks and other things they need to go skiing. And, if they forget something, they remember to pack it next time.”
Formerly, the school brought children to Sun Valley for a two-hour outing once a year. But that wasn’t long enough to allow the students to make progress from year to year.
So, the club’s Director Jodie Hamilton started the Adventure Club, adding swim lessons with AquaAbility at Zenergy and rock climbing at the Wood River Community YMCA into the mix.
Higher Ground volunteer Dale Closner said it’s made a big difference in the youngsters’ skiing skills.
“I started volunteering with Higher Ground 11 years ago because I’m a veteran and I wanted to help out with the veteran camps. But the vets come one time and you never see them again. I’ve been this group twice a year for three years. I remember how Natalie here was brand new to skiing when we started, and she’s learned a lot in three years. It’s amazing how well she remembers things from last year,” he said.
“I like skiing. It’s fun,” said Benitez.
Webster has conducted a few classes for volunteers with Higher Ground, which offers therapeutic recreation for veterans and others with physical or cognitive challenges. In addition to teaching them basic signs, she has educated them about deaf culture.
“With hearing kids it’s easy to explain what they’re supposed to do through words. But with deaf children, you need to figure out how to get the students inside their body and feeling,” Webster said. “If we’re working with a snowboarder, for instance, we need to hold their hands and show them what they should feel when they’re on toe edge and what they should feel when they’re on heel edge.”
Those who work with the children are rife with success stories of the youngsters, who wear black club jackets sporting a Higher Ground patch and a patch of the school’s dinosaur-like Raptor mascot.
One young skier named Skylar, for instance, is quadriplegic. He could sit in a sit ski while instructors took him on rides down the slopes, but he could only watch from a wheelchair as his fellow students climbed to the top of the climbing wall at the Y, ringing the bell to signify they had summited.
Then, one of the instructors figured out how to rig a harness and climb with him, both on belay.
“Before, he sat there saying, ‘To the top. To the top,’ “ recounted Burgen. “Now, he can go all the way to the top and ring the bell just like everyone else.”
Angel Vega learned to advocate for himself, insisting that he snowboard heel side, rather than toe side when the latter wasn’t working for him.
And Yarin Telez, who commutes to the school in Gooding every day from Hailey, was so shy at first that he never talked with anyone. But after being introduced to snowboarding through the program, he went from tiny steps like affixing the snowboard to his boots to riding the Magic Carpet.
As it clicked, he became so enthusiastic he joined the Free Ride program that rides the slopes at Sun Valley every Saturday.
“The motto of the club is, ‘I can try hard things.’ And it fits,” said Webster.
The students return to school after each outing proud of their accomplishments, said teaching instructor Lauren Stoltzfus.
“What they do here transfers to their school work. They learn things like perseverance. When you’re on top of the mountain looking down, there’s no way out but to try. And, when they succeed, they realize they can try things they never thought possible.”