Mammoth Mountain is the place where Pierce instructor Joe Perret and his wife Nina met, fell in love and got engaged. But after an injury to Nina’s back led her to stop skiing, Joe no longer had a partner in the snow.
Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra (DSES) was able to get him back on the slopes with others. It also provided him with the ability to help people who may have never thought they would be off stable ground.
Perret has been instructing with DSES for about 10 years.
“It combines some of the things I really love,” Perret said. “I love the mountains. I love to ski. I love to teach—you put it all together and that’s what I do.”
DSES is an organization that aims to make sports affordable and accessible to people with disabilities. Adaptive equipment is used to enable people to participate in winter and summer activities.
“We have given them a section of their life back,” Perret said. “They lost the recreational part of their life, and they now have a feeling of accomplishment that, if they can do this, they can do anything.”
Executive Director Kathy Copeland founded DSES in 2003. She said there was a need for a separate disabled sports program at Mammoth Lakes.
She said the organization is all-inclusive. Any disability, age, or gender—they can get them out on the hill.
DSES instructs more than 400 students, offering over 3,500 lessons a year. According to DSES staff, about 23 percent of students are people on the autism spectrum, and about 20 percent are people who have suffered a traumatic physical injury.
“It’s an equalizer,” Copeland said. “People come up here in their wheelchairs; They are used to being on the pavement, and then all of the sudden, they have the world opened up to them.”
Perret said that instructing his students at Mammoth provides similar rewards to teaching at Pierce.
“The biggest thrill is when it clicks. When suddenly, they get it, and they get that look on their face,” Perret said. “You get the same thing in the classroom. That’s why I enjoy teaching.”
Perret said that being a volunteer instructor for DSES has taught him to be more patient. And, in the long term, both practices provide experience and knowledge for the other.
Through DSES, students can have half-day adaptive sports lesson in the morning or afternoon. At least two instructors assist during the private lessons. All expenses cost about $95, and if needed, scholarships are offered.
DSES Director Laura Beardsley said that physical or mental disabilities should not prevent someone from participating in recreational winter sports.
She said she has learned a lot from working with differently abled people.
“It’s been such an incredible experience because you get to meet and know and understand people whose experiences are completely different from yours,” Beardsley said.
Perret’s student Russell Johnson, a schoolteacher in San Diego, has hereditary spastic paraparesis, a progressive condition that may show symptoms in the third decade of one’s life.
“When I was about 20, I started to walk with a gate, and then over the past 30 years, it’s gotten worse,” Johnson said.
Johnson skied for many years and around the world before his disease began to worsen. He said he saw videos and photos of adapted sports and decided to give it a try with DSES.
Johnson said that Perret is a fantastic instructor who taught him how to use the ski riggers and stay focused.
“I think it’s actually made me want to do more stuff that I could do before but can’t do now,” Johnson said.
To ski, Johnson uses a biski, which Perret describes as a bucket a person sits in to adjust their balance and direction as they go downhill. Instead of using his legs, he uses riggers to steer.
“It’s very rigorous. We got him coming down a generous slope a couple times,” Perret said. “By the end of that day, he was skiing independently down that hill. Now he knows he can do it, so now we are working on making him totally independent.”
Amy Ambellan has volunteered with DSES for six years. She said that she is inspired by people with disabilities who participate in sports with adaptive equipment.
“I love the vision to get the people out in the snow. If you can do this, you can do anything,” Ambellan said. “There are people who are paralyzed and can do that, so it provides a new perspective.”
She said the organization attracts kind and genuine volunteers.
“I can’t tell you enough about the quality of the people who work here. We’ve got judges, doctors, lawyers, teachers,” Ambellan said.
Copeland agreed and said that DSES volunteers come from all walks of life. She said the organization has about 200 people, many of whom travel far to donate their time.
Perret lives part time in Southern California and the rest near Mammoth. His specialty has become working with people with physical disabilities.
“Spinal cord and lower limb weakness, he loves to teach them on monoskis and biskis, which takes a special skill set and brute strength. He has honed in on that and made that his specialty,” Copeland said. “He has really got a lot of passion for this organization.”
Beardsley said that Perret is dedicated and motivates the athletes to gain experience.
“He brings a great insight. He’s often one who can and will say, “Hey, I have an idea for how we can make this a better experience for the athletes or for volunteers,’” Beardsley said.
DSES offers other community programs to take advantage of the therapeutic nature of the mountain, Beardsley said. In 2007, it began a program for veterans and wounded warriors. During the winter, they have the program Operation Freedom, and during the summer, Operation High Altitude.
“We bring wounded warriors and veterans together to spend a week here learning new skills, challenging themselves and benefiting from the healing environment of this place.”
Copeland agrees that Mammoth Lakes is a relaxing and healing place that relieves visitors’ stress.
“You can see when people come up here that their shoulders relax. They aren’t thinking about work, they aren’t thinking about their rehab. It’s a very special place where people can absorb the good energy of these mountains,” Copeland said.
Perret said that he remains inside a classroom all year, but is given respite from that environment by his trips to volunteer at Mammoth. He said he enjoys relieving stress at the mountain, but the best reward is helping his students reach their goals.
“The therapy for these folks is the accomplishment of being able to set a goal, accomplish it, and move on to another one,” Perret said. “We have some people that take a long a time to get from here to there, but they still do, and that’s the important thing.”