Here’s an audio version
On the desk in my treatment room rests a new ornament. It’s a trophy consisting of a ski tip set into a beautiful wood base. An inscription on the front declares it to be an award for second place in the women’s snowshoeing race at the 2014 Black Hills Ski For Light event. I’ve never won a trophy in my life: till now.
As a blind person, I would argue that I often get the chance to see people at their best. Most of the cool recreational stuff I get to participate in, sailing, tandem cycling, running, dragon boating, blind tennis, and skiing, only happen because really excellent people give generously of their time, energy and money.
The snowshoeing trophy I won was made by one of the benefactors of the ski event, and presented by one of the multitude of friendly and warm-hearted volunteers without whom the event simply couldn’t happen. The banquet on the last night contained a memorial to all the people who’d made this event a success for 35 years running.
Ski For Light is an international organization that hosts annual events in which blind, visually impaired and mobility impaired skiers are paired with sighted volunteer guides for a week of winter sport, and a comradely family atmosphere the like of which I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
When I attended my first Ski for Light event 4 years ago, I hadn’t spent much time socializing with other blind people; I’d catapulted myself in among the best. Having skied before, I knew about the reserves of determination required to pick yourself up out of the snow for the 5th or 10th time. Getting up the up slopes is mostly a matter of strength, but getting down the down slopes needs balance, guts, trust in yourself, and luck, at least until you’ve mastered a good snowplough. A failure of any of these will reliably result in what’s aptly referred to as a yard sale, that is, the distinctive jumble of skis, poles and limbs, from which you must somehow extract yourself and re-attain vertical status. By about my 4th yard sale, I usually take 10 seconds or so just to lie still in the snow, while reassuring my concerned guide that I’m really ok, I’m just resting. Each yard sale gets incrementally harder, as you accrue minor aches or injuries, and generally get more tired.
Knowing all this intimately, I was awed to see a hundred or so blind people keep going and going and going, most of them more competent and resilient than me. Each of them had the resources of courage, adventurousness, athleticism, sociability and finance to spend a week of their lives here, and really enjoy it: and seeing this in others helped me see it in myself.
Of course none of this would be possible without the people who volunteer as guides and organizers. What kind of people give a week of their vacation, which they pay for, to help others? I can answer that easily: incredible people. I’ve attended 4 Ski for Light events. Each time, I’ve tried to express to my guide and to other volunteers how much I admire their generosity. Each time, I’m reassured, with a sincerity I can’t doubt, that they get as much out of the week as the participants do. I can only accept their sincerity as I unobtrusively wipe away a tear or two.
As a conscientious hippy, I often hear about the gap between rich and poor, and the inequities in our society. At each Ski for Light event, I’m submerged in the other truths: generosity, sharing what we have to share, and giving what we have to give. At the most recent event I attended in South Dakota, a well-established and recognized benefactor of the event paid $1000 for a quilt at a silent auction, then donated it to a long-time volunteer. The hotel which guested the participants is partly owned by another benefactor, and our fees for the week were so low that they simply had to have been underwritten by his generosity. For blind people, a population notoriously low on the income scale, such benevolence surely made the difference between being able to attend or not for many of us.
All of our ski and snowshoe equipment was provided. Volunteers made and maintained the trails for the week. More volunteers created an oasis in a snowy field on Federal land consisting of a huge tend complete with wood stove, caldrons of delicious food and drink, and a delightful party atmosphere. In fact, if you cared to, you could forgo winter sport all together and laze around the tent all day being plied with home-made kettle chips, and hot chocolate to which a magical ingredient or two had been added to keep the cold away.
There were so many cool people there that you could spend each day talking with someone you hadn’t met before, from somewhere you’d never been, who does something for a living you know nothing about. As a blind person, you are the rule not the exception, and you could receive as much or as little help as you wanted or needed.
It’s really hard to say what my favourite part of these events is, but if I had to choose one thing, I’d say it’s the quality of the people I meet there. The participants are courageous, resourceful, and game for a challenge. The donors and volunteers are warm, caring, fun-loving people who choose to give their vacation time to helping others, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.