Eight-year-old Anthony Berlyn spent the first three years of his life in the hospital.
“When we got him, he couldn’t walk,” said Jack Phelps, Anthony’s foster parent.
But Saturday afternoon, under a blue sky at Tsalteshi Trails, Anthony was slowly skiing along in a classic track with two volunteers supporting him on either side.
“It’s pretty exciting to see him out here,” Soldotna resident Phelps said. “He’s got a strong spirit.”
About 15 other children had showed up with winter gear and cross-country skis, many of whom had physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities. It was the third annual Learn to Ski Day.
Angela Beplat, an occupational therapist and the event founder, said she started Learn to Ski Day because she was shocked at how few youth she encountered skied.
“Most of the kids I talked to didn’t know how to ski,” Beplat said, and she thought that was a shame.
So she tried to change that.
Beplat has no experience coaching, but there are many skiers in her family, she said. So once she gathered all their leftover gear, found about 15 to 20 volunteers from junior high and high school ski teams and started the event to help children with disabilities learn to ski.
“It’s usually just a blast, lots of falls and lots of laughing,” she said.
With so many volunteers, Beplat said the event is able to offer one-on-one instruction. For many with developmental or cognitive disabilities, that is a huge bonus, she said.
For Anthony, who has been housebound much of his life, the chance to interact with instructors and other children is vital, Phelps said.
“It’s making him get out into the community now,” Beplat said. “Skiing in itself is so great — so many things to list.”
She said skiing helps with bilateral coordination and balance, forces independent leg use for those who have difficultly with that, promotes social skills, and encourages community involvement.
“My goal for the kids is that they come out here and just give it a try,” she said.
Hopefully, she said, the event will set the hook for outdoor exercise later in their lives.
That was the case for the Lathrops.
Amber Lathrop and her four adopted children — Logan, 10; Sophia, 9; Taryn, 9; Kian, 7 — attended the first Learn To Ski event and have returned each year.
After the first year, they all bought snowshoes. At the beginning of this year, they all bought skis.
“Once you get the major equipment it’s just like you can go where ever you want,” Lathrop said. “You don’t have to pay for lift tickets.”
Lathrop, a single mother, said the event allows her children to spend time with older role models. It teaches them independence and to be responsible with their belongings, she said.
Most of all, skiing allows them to exercise outdoors together.
“It’s nice because we can do it as a family,” she said.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.