Quinnipiac contingent hits the slopes to help children learn to ski

skiers
From left: Occupational therapy student Marta Parys teaches Kyle Errato how to ski with the help of Kyle's father Frank at Mount Southington on Feb. 28.

March 4, 2014 - A group of 25 occupational therapy and physical therapy students, faculty members and alumni volunteered this winter with Connecticut Children's Medical Center's Skiers Unlimited program, which teaches children with disabilities to ski.

The seven-week program concluded Feb. 28 at Mount Southington. Using snow sliders, outriggers and tethers to control balance as well as turns and speed, the University group helped more than 20 children learn to ski.

Tracy Van Oss, clinical associate professor of occupational therapy in the School of Health Sciences, has been associated with the adaptive ski program for nearly two decades. She started as a volunteer while a student at Quinnipiac.

"Friday afternoons in January and February are carved out for Skiers Unlimited," she said. "It's all about the sunshine and the kids' smiling faces as they enjoy something that I love. I hope skiing can become a lifelong leisure habit for the children."

Quinnipiac alumna Jessica Koch-DeCarli, an occupational therapist from Columbia, Conn., is in her seventh year with the ski program.

"It's just an awesome experience," she said.

Steve Balcanoff, manager of non-clinical community programs at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, said the Skiers Unlimited program dates back 30 years. Quinnipiac became involved two decades ago when Richard Albro, associate professor of physical therapy emeritus, discovered the ski program while on sabbatical.

"He was so impressed that he said, 'Why don't we set something up for the students to be able to come out here and help?'" Balcanoff recalled.

"The Quinnipiac students have been wonderful," Balcanoff added. "They have enthusiasm and strong backs. Some of them have never skied, but they learned and have developed really close relationships with the children. You can see the disappointment on their faces when one of their skiers is sick or doesn't show up for a week."

Jasmin Rodriguez of New Britain said Skiers Unlimited has opened new doors for her 9-year-old son, Nicholas, who has Mowat-Wilson Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects many parts of the body.

"This year, he started skiing by himself with tethering," she said. "The Quinnipiac students are great. I think the experience has given him confidence and excitement."

Paula Jordan, a physical therapy first-year graduate student from Orange, N.J., never skied before volunteering with Skiers Unlimited.

"It has definitely confirmed that I want to be in pediatrics," Jordan said. 

Unlike Jordan, Federica Mucci of Tuscany, Italy grew up on skis. The occupational therapy first-year graduate student started with Skiers Unlimited as a freshman. She said she is considering moving to Colorado after graduation to pursue a career working with skiers with disabilities.

"I've been skiing since I was 3," she said. "I love the sport and seeing smiling, happy children."