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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Mendon, Vt.) - Vermont Adaptive, a non-profit organization that uses specialized equipment and knowledgeable staff and volunteers to help people of all levels of physical ability enjoy outdoor activities, unveiled a new ski lodge Friday at Pico Mountain in Mendon, Vt. The facility will serve as a headquarters for the organization's year-round activities, and also as a slope-side center to aid in helping people with disabilities to enjoy skiing.
Vermont Adaptive will share the $1.3-million, 6,000-square-foot Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge with another non-profit, the Pico Ski Education Foundation. It provides young ski racers with the resources to pursue their dreams.
"Accessibility at ski areas is often limited," said Sarah Will, a Paralympic champion, describing the boost the center will provide skiers with disabilities.
Will uses a wheelchair to get around, following a ski accident in the late 1980s. That didn't stop her competitive spirit. She has 12 Paralympic gold medals and a silver, in skiing. She helped cut the ribbon on the Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge at her hometown hill, where the current Colorado resident grew up skiing. "I was overwhelmed with gratitude," Will said.
Erin Fernandez, the executive director of Vermont Adaptive, said several New England ski areas, including Loon Mountain and Mt. Sunapee in New Hampshire, have stand-out programs aimed at helping people with physical challenges such as paralysis or blindness to enjoy the slopes. "I think New England is ahead of the curve," Fernandez said of the availability of adaptive winter sports in the region.
The group's new Pico facility boasts specialized equipment, an elevator, wide door frames, a private care room, and a calming space for young people on the autism spectrum. "We're trying to just invite everybody who wants to recreate here," Fernandez said.
Officials with the Vt. Dept. of Tourism & Marketing say travelers with disabilities are a large and growing segment of the tourism market. Those consumers are more numerous than most people would assume, said Steve Cook, Vermont's deputy tourism commissioner. "It's really important that we can attract a wide spectrum of people who want to enjoy outdoor activities," Cook told New England Cable News. "This is a great opportunity, and a great thing for Vermont. It really strengthens our ability to market the state as an outdoor recreation destination."
Travelers with disabilities worldwide have countless billions of dollars to spend on travel, Will and Cook suggested, if they can be convinced the places they want to go can accommodate them. "Marketing to different audiences is something that we're very familiar with doing," Cook said. "This is a very important piece of that puzzle--to be able to promote Vermont as an accessible place; as a place where people of all different physical abilities can participate in outdoor recreation."
Cook said he believes travelers with disabilities tend to bring at least one other person with them on trips, perhaps more, and if they all feel well-accommodated, they may return to a destination.
Fernandez said half the people Vermont Adaptive serves are from Vermont and half are from out-of-state. Other New England states, and even the Midwest and South are common locations where families with disabled members hail from when visiting Vermont and seeking adaptive sports training, Fernandez said.
Because of the potential of Vermont Adaptive's offerings attract visitors from both in-state and out-of-state, the tourism sector is hailing the new center as a potential boost for Pico, its sister business, the Killington Resort, and surrounding communities. "This is a great opportunity, and a great thing for Vermont," Cook said.
Sarah Will said she hopes to see more people follow in her tracks: enjoying the slopes with no limits. "Skiing is for everyone," she said, smiling. "Disability has nothing to do with it."
Powdr Corporation, the parent company of Pico Mountain and the Killington Resort, donated $50,000 Friday to the ongoing fundraising efforts for the Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge. It follows approximately $900,000 that has been raised in donations and pledges in the past 18 months, Fernandez said. She said she still needs to raise at least $100,000 to finish off the project.
Other statewide centers for delivery of adaptive sports assistance for all seasons are planned, Fernandez added.