Imagine living here and not being able to explore the mountain in winter or trails in the summer. Enter Small Champions, a local nonprofit that works with kids who have Cerebral Palsy, Down’s syndrome, blindness and autism, giving them the chance to ski, snowboard, swim, horseback ride, rock climb, play tennis and golf.
Small Champions was founded in 1996 – not that long ago, but it was still the era when kids with disabilities weren’t able to participate in sports programs. “That was the premise for the programs, and it still is: to allow kids who did not have a place to play sports to get out there and enjoy all the Vail Valley has to offer,” says John Weiss, Program Coordinator with Small Champions.
Small Champions works with Eagle County Schools to find kids who need the program the most. “Our goal is to have kids be mainstreamed. Rationally and reasonably, it’s not going to happen for some kids,” Connie Miller, executive director of Small Champions, says. “Kids can choose what they want to be involved with… they can try anything. It’s all about being inclusive, and what works for you.”
This inclusivity reaps rewards for kids in the program. Just ask Honore Everly, mother of Sam who has been in Small Champions’ programs for years. “It has brought such life and joy into Sam’s life… and into ours,” she says. “It’s incredible to watch as a parent. You think, ‘Ah he will never be able to do this or that.’ Small Champions made us realize it was all possible.”
A few years ago Small Champions sat down and did a 10-year plan. The organization anticipated having 40 kids in its programs by 2016. As with anything that is well run and well regarded, Small Champions is way ahead of its goal: 40 kids are in its programs this year. A rough guesstimate is that there are upwards of 300 children who could benefit from Small Champions.
And although it’s a sports-based program, it’s much more than sports. This might be the first time a child is able to go out and explore the mountain, or rock climb or ride a horse. And often when the sport takes hold, something shines in the child.
“We’ve had kids who have not spoken and then they rode a horse, in our horse program and something just clicked,” Connie says. “They started speaking. It’s like therapy, it’s not just sports.”
Rick Sackbauer, a parent of a child with Down’s syndrome, echoes the sentiment. “Because of the Small Champions one-on-one lessons with amazing individuals as coaches, Tim can now spend the day skiing double black diamonds in Vail’s Back Bowls… He can ride a horse for hours on end. He can play an ok game of golf with a goal to get better.
“More importantly than the athletic skills, the time with these coaches has allowed him to become independent and self-confident. Finally, parents of Small Champions seldom have a “break” in their daily lives. Small Champions provides that, too, even if only for a few hours,” Rick says.
John agrees. He’s seen firsthand how the program changes lives. “Every one of the outings we have is fantastic . One of our big goals is to provide great outdoor activities for children, and the group is their gang, it’s the kids they get to see every week. There are some kids with autism, who don’t do well with other kids, but they connect with the other kids (in their group).”
So how does it all work? Small Champions is the intermediary connecting professional instructors with the kids who need them. Every year families apply through Small Champions, which works with the school, the child’s physicians and physical and occupational therapists to make sure everyone is working together and is on the same page. “We have them apply every year so we review what’s going on from the year before, so our instructors can follow through and follow the same pattern that the student and teachers are already doing so it works together,” Connie explains.
Kids in school are eligible, which is age 5 through 21. “We’ve seen all of these kids grow up, it’s so great to see to see these kids gather. It’s a wonderful thing for the valley,” Honore adds. “Everyone benefits.”
Ready to get involved? Small Champions relies on donations and volunteers. Mark your calendar for September’s Annual Small Champions golf tournament at the Beaver Creek Golf Course to raise funds for Small Champions.