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"deEMPHASIZE the disABILITY"

Penguin Paddle event supports Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program

What do you get when you combine a good cause with garbage bags, a ski hill, silent auction, tasty food, and tons of laughs? The Penguin Paddle, of course! On Saturday, February 24, Holiday Valley’s Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program (LASP) will be hosting its annual fundraiser at the base of Yodeler Lodge to raise money for their program, which offers lessons to persons with virtually all disabilities, both physical and cognitive. “It’s a really fun afternoon, and you don’t even have to know how to ski,” said Mary Ellen Racich, LASP director.

Even if you have absolutely no experience on the slopes, the Penguin Paddle is for you! Participants as young as five years old can take part by purchasing a garbage bag for $1 and donning it before sliding down the hill on their bellies “penguin style” with others in their age group to compete for prizes. Purchase your garbage bag and register for the slide at Creekside Lodge from 8:30-12:30 or from 9am-1:00 at Yodeler Lodge. The Penguin Races begin at 1:30pm. Helmets are required.

“It’s incredible how much the fundraiser and the program have grown over the years,” said Racich, who has been a part of the program for 27 years, serving as director for the past 16. In 1987, Bill Lounsbury, a ski patroller at Holiday Valley, lost his leg to cancer, but continued to ski using outriggers (specialized ski equipment), inspiring all who knew him. When he passed away, many donations were made in his honor, and the money was used to start LASP, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and chapter of Disabled Sports USA.

In its earliest years, Racich recalls the program being quite small, with four instructors teaching about 10 lessons. Now, the program has grown to 45 volunteer instructors who teach an average of 250 lessons throughout the season, which runs from December 26 through March 23. The program, whose mission is to “deEMPHASIZE the disABILITY,” serves individuals between the ages of 5 and 75 of all physical and mental abilities, ranging from paralysis, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis to autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. While most of the program’s students are children, Racich explained that there is a group of seniors with Parkinson’s disease that participates, as well as a group of veterans who ski and are served lunch at no charge every year (this year’s Veteran’s Day event is March 7).

Emily Alexander, a 31-year-old student with Down syndrome, has been participating in the program since she was 13, and it’s been a life-changing experience. “She used to ski with us from the ages of 4 to 8, but then she just didn’t want to anymore,” explained her mother, Georgia Alexander, whose family lives in Cleveland but has been skiing in Ellicottville since the 1960s. “Then Mary Ellen invited her to join the program and she’s been skiing ever since! She loves to ski with the instructors and the one-on-one attention.”

The program, which consists of volunteer instructors who work two-on-one with students in a private setting, offers lessons 7 days/week at Holiday Valley. For just $50, students receive a two-hour lesson, all of their skiing equipment (including bi-skis and mono-skis for individuals with physical disabilities), and a lift ticket. “Emily has gone from skiing with a rope around her waist to being able to ski anywhere! She can snow-plow, turn and is totally in control. It’s given her great independence!” said her mother, who highly recommends the program to anyone with special needs. Michael, Emily’s boyfriend of 14 years who also has Down syndrome, has been skiing with the program for the past 5 years and absolutely loves it.

Racich invites everyone to take part in Feb. 24th’s LASP fundraiser, as there is more to the event than just the races. The food tent will be selling hot dogs, chips, and other goodies, and this year’s event includes a beer/wine tent. There is also a large silent auction every year, which includes prize baskets donated by local businesses and individuals.

Each year, raffle tickets are sold for three prizes: first prize is a season pass to Holiday Valley, second prize is a $500 travel voucher from Southwest Airlines, and third prize is a brand new pair of skis donated by Dekdebruns! Tickets are $5 each or 6 for $25 and are available now at the main Ski School desk and at the Lounsbury building (located next to the Tannenbaum Lodge). Even if you can’t make it to the fundraiser, buying raffle tickets is a great way to support the event, as the winner need not be present to win!

To learn more about the Penguin Paddle and LASP, visit https://skilasp.wixsite.com/lounsburyadaptive and join the hundreds of paddlers at this annual event! Those interested in signing up for lessons with LASP (must be reserved in advance) can email laspski@hotmail.com. Be sure to follow the Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program on Facebook, too!