- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

McHENRY, Md. — Five students from the Maryland School for the Blind confidently made their way down the ski slopes at Wisp Mountain.

With more than 30 volunteers on hand to help the students , this week’s four-day trip was part of the school’s mission to “treat the whole child, not just the disability.”

Pam Schirmer, who has organized the trips for 18 years, said everyone on the slopes welcomes the students.

“People who see us on the slopes are amazed,” Mrs. Schirmer said. “They want to buy the kids hot chocolate in the lodge.”

The students wore orange bibs with the words “Blind Skier” to alert other skiers to be cautious.

Three or four guides were assigned to each student. They tell their students when to go right, when to go left and, if necessary, when to fall down.

Guide Kenny Wilburn, 16, said they always are prepared for the worst. “[A guide] always skis on the [cliff] side in case [the skier] gets away,” Kenny said. “We tackle.”

Of the five students, only Chicka Oguledo, 21, is completely blind. However, each student suffers from severe vision loss in addition to other disabilities.

During one of his many attempts to conquer the beginner’s slopes known as the Wisp Trail, Chicka pointed his skis downhill and listened to his guides for further instructions.

“Turn right, Chicka. Right,” his guide told him.

The students must trust their guides’ instructions completely.

“If we say right, they go right,” said Mark Althoff, the Baltimore school’s communications director. “If we say left, they go left. And if we say fall, they know they must fall.”

Later in the day, Chicka joined the class for snow-tubing. He couldn’t put into words what it felt like to speed down the hill without seeing what was ahead of him.

“Just flying down and going fast. It’s great,” he said as he prepared to go up for another run.

For 28 years, the Deep Creek Lake Lion’s Club has sponsored the trips, which the school takes three or four times each year. Founded in 1853, the school is a nonprofit organization.

This week, the students spent Monday through yesterday skiing and tubing.

“I have never seen anything like it,” said skier Don Hodges, 37, of New Windsor, Md., as he watched the students cruise by him at intermediate speeds.

Mr. Hodges said he admired their courage. “Whenever someone aspires to do what most think they can’t, it is inspiring to everyone,” he said.

Mr. Althoff said the students are often less fearful on the chairlifts than those who can see, because “when you can’t see that you are a hundred feet off the ground, it doesn’t bother you,” he said.

Julie Elliott, 20, was not at all afraid on Tuesday when the power went out and she was stuck with her guide on the chairlift for 20 minutes. “I sang ‘It’s a Small World’ the whole time,” she said with a smile.

Meanwhile, Malcomb Hawkins, 16, ventured off his lead pole from time to time, and his guides taught him how to zigzag over the icy spots on the slopes.

Mallorie Salley, 15, tried snow-tubing for a few hours Wednesday afternoon.

“This hill is fast,” the ski patrol warned her as she and three leaders linked tubes for what was a slippery ride downhill.

“This is great,” she said, as she threw her head back and laughed all the way down the hill.

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