Whistler Adaptive looking to grow 

Program hopes to hire full-time coaches to better serve athletes

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER ADAPTIVE SPORTS PROGRAM - WATER WISHES Sam Ferris has enjoyed physical, social and emotional benefits as a result of his participation in Whistler Adaptive Sports Program offerings.
  • Photo courtesy of Whistler Adaptive Sports Program
  • WATER WISHES Sam Ferris has enjoyed physical, social and emotional benefits as a result of his participation in Whistler Adaptive Sports Program offerings.

Sam Ferris has a limited vocabulary, but the nine-year-old has a few words and phrases he can use to express himself.

According to his mother, Amanda Walker, one of those is "I'm proud," which he used regularly after starting with Whistler Adaptive Sports Program's (WASP) camps, which include activities such as canoeing, paddleboarding, hiking and swimming at camp, as well as arts and crafts.

"He would actually say 'I'm proud' and he would tell everybody that he'd been to camp and (say) the things that he was doing," she said.

Sam has a condition called Glut1 Deficiency, which is described by the Glut1 Deficiency Foundation as "a genetic disorder that impairs brain metabolism. Glucose isn't transported properly into the brain, leaving it starving for the energy it needs to grow and function." Only 800 people worldwide have the condition.

In layman's terms, Walker described it as: "You know what happens if you put gasoline in a diesel engine. It doesn't work. With Sam, basically what happens is gasoline is carbohydrates and if you flood his system with carbohydrates, his brain malfunctions. He has to eat 90-per-cent fats and be in fat-burning mode at all times or there are serious repercussions," she said, noting a recent incident where he'd eaten apples and suffered two seizures as a result. He was airlifted to BC Children's Hospital.

Walker explained her son started taking swimming lessons through the program about a year ago, and this summer, he was able to ride a bike for the first time, except his bicycle had a hand pedal. Being able to ride allowed Sam to share something with his father and brother, who both love cycling.

"He was sitting on the sidelines, but now he can say he went biking, too," Walker said. "When I picked him up, he was riding the bike. He had a few crashes, but he just kept on saying 'Again, again.'

"I didn't realize the effect that camp would have on him mentally. He has a brother who skis and bikes and does DFX (downhill, freeride and cross-country) and all these things. Sam has been watching these things and we didn't really recognize that he was that aware of what Charlie had been doing. He would tell us that he goes to camp like Charlie."

The feeling of inclusion, Walker explained, can't be understated. It's difficult enough to find programming for children with special needs, but for it to be as financially viable to participate in and have it reach that standards that it does is rarer than one would hope.

"If he was going to camp with neuro-typical children, he would have to have a one-to-one support with him, so I would have to pay for the camp and I'd have to pay for somebody to be with him," Walker said. "It's almost like paying double for camp.

"(At swimming, Sam's coach) just knew what to do with him. He does less actual swimming lessons and she does more body work with him to help strengthen his core. It's incredible; it's kind of like physio-swimming in a way."

And, like any parent dropping a child at camp or a lesson, it's easy to feel a pang of doubt or nervousness. However, Walker said she has full confidence in the program, from the instruction to the care to ensuring he won't be fed anything he shouldn't eat.

"At WASP, what happens is I drop him off at camp and they have a two-to-one ratio," she said. "It's completely specialized for the kids who attend the camps, so that means they do the right activities for the kids that are there. For Sam, it's full inclusion, so he can do everything."

WASP's path forward

The program is currently in the midst of a growth spurt to keep up with demand, complete with a fundraising campaign to enable the organization to expand its reach. WASP recently surpassed its initial goal of $40,000 needed to offer an additional 1,000 lessons, up from its current schedule of 3,000 per year. WASP serves about 600 athletes a year, with about 115 of those based in the Sea to Sky. The program offers 18 sports, with a hope to add adaptive skating in the near future.

What makes the feat all the more impressive is that WASP has just two full-time, year-round employees, and is looking to add a third as a youth development coordinator.

"It would be absolutely massive," said executive director Chelsey Walker (no relation to Amanda). "It would be somebody who would help work specifically on developing and providing kids and youth programming. Right now, there's essentially a year-round staff of two with seasonal and contract staff for all the different sports programs. To add a third year-round full-time staff member would dramatically increase our abilities to provide more service."

WASP board president Meredith Gardner said the campaign has grown in leaps and bounds, with some internal scepticism at first over the $20,000 goal, which was later raised to $40,000. The campaign is now closing in on $50,000.

The push for growth started after WASP had a group assess its readiness to hire a fund development manager, Gardner said.

"Their assessment said we were doing a lot of things well and that we had quite a great group of people they believed would donate to Whistler Adaptive because of all the great work we do," she said. "We just weren't particularly strong at having the ability in the system to put a proper campaign together, to have email lists and contact people properly, have them donate and follow up with receipts, all the things you have to do.

"We knew we were critically short of funds and staff, and thought, 'We can't go spend money on someone who costs us more than our staff now to make us more money. It seems impossible,'" she added, noting that at the capacity at which WASP is operating, it should have 10 full-time staff members. "But this audit and that plan and doing this first step to raise this first chunk of money is just so important."

There are, admittedly, some growing pains. While WASP has received some feedback regarding lack of communication about their programming, Gardner explained there is a multi-step process in place where the group will boost its capacity first and broadcast that fact once it is ready. Otherwise, she said, the existing waitlist would just get longer.

Adding more staff will allow executive director Walker to delegate some portfolios to those with specific expertise after years of operating as WASP's Swiss Army knife. The campaign runs until Dec. 31 at whistleradaptive.com/donors/donate/fall2018.

WASP has a matching fund set up by some regular donors to help encourage others to donate.

"If somebody can donate $50 but they know it's going to turn into $100, they're going to go out and support it," Gardner said, adding that for every dollar a participant pays, WASP provides $3 to cover the full cost of the program.

As WASP continues to raise funds to hire staff, Walker added that the program is always looking for people to lend a hand as well.

"The only way we can grow is to dramatically increase our volunteer pool. But to do that, you need people to manage your volunteer pool," she said. "Our vision and our dream is to provide services to all the kids as well as adults in the Sea to Sky corridor, and we have to expand our staff base, no doubt about it."

A long-time Whistler resident, Gardner has seen how the resort has come together to support athletic endeavours, and is calling out for it to give a boost to those who face a few additional hurdles to achievement.

"I've seen the amazing ability of this community to get behind and fundraise for big projects," she said. "Let's get it done."

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