Next month, Team GB’s Paralympic squad will head to South Korea looking to emulate its success of four years ago. Hoping to use the games to inspire the next generation is Cardiff’s, Donna Marshall.
Donna, is a mum of three, including the wonderful Aimee, who diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), moderate learning difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), synontosis of her ulna & radius and other relating conditions.
In Autumn 2017, Donna set-up ‘Ski Smiles’, an initiative aimed at providing skiing lessons to accommodate local children with additional life challenges. The club currently offers these sessions free of any charge on a bi-weekly basis at Cardiff’s ski & snowboard centre. This week, I went along to ask Donna about what Ski Smiles have been up to.
What was the inspiration for Ski Smiles?
My eldest son, Callum, is friends with the son of Chris Lloyd, Paralympic Skier for Team GB. We decided to all go up to Tamworth Snowdome as a group for the boys to do some skiing lessons.
We got there and Chris said warmly, “there is no reason why Aimee can’t come on that slope too.” She was a lot smaller at the time and had been through lots of operations. So there are me and my husband looking through the viewing panel with butterflies in our bellies going “what on Earth are we going to do!?” But by the end of the session, she had this massive smile on her face, we just could not believe it!
We came home and began researching inclusive ski sessions locally. In the end, the closest one to Cardiff was over 60 miles away at Pembrey. I thought, if that is the only session she can attend, I have got to take her. Because I knew that Aimee was diagnosed with low muscle tone as well, so she could do it as her physio session. We managed to get her name down, and I used to take her there every Wednesday morning for over a year. So I got it in my head then that I was going to start these sessions. I know very little about skiing, but I’ll learn! So that is what I did.
How did the sessions become a reality?
I came down to Cardiff’s dry slope and spoke to Rich, the site manager, about my idea. He had his reservations at first, but came around quickly when we discussed just how many children this could help locally. So then we agreed that we would set a date for a trial session.
From there, it was all about trying to get the word out there and assessing interest. We started advertising and the first session was full within a week. I thought, that proves that 100% there is a need for this.
Who are the sessions aimed at?
It’s for those diagnosed with any physical disability, as well as those with learning disabilities.
At the moment, due to the volunteer base, we haven’t been able to accommodate sit-skiers unfortunately. However, we are having a new volunteer in who does use a sit-ski. So in the very near future, we will hopefully be able to accommodate sit-skiers.
How have the kids taken to the slopes?
They have absolutely loved it.
They are really nervous when they first get here and don’t know if they are going to be able to do it. Then they prove to themselves that they can, and come back each week that little bit more comfortable on the slope and with their surroundings. To see these massive smiles on their faces is the best feeling.
Our coaches; Gareth, Morgan, Dan, Dom and Georgia are all amazing as well! I can’t thank them enough!
Is there anything that has surprised you?
There is a large age-range here. The youngest member is 3, and the oldest is 16. Yet everyone just gets along. It is a key part of their social growth that they are communicating. If these children can communicate, and make friends, that is so important.
I know that for Aimee, she maybe doesn’t have those typical friendship bonds at school. But if she can come to a group like this and actually look forward to coming, how amazing is that?
Also the support has really shocked me. I never thought this would be as successful as it has been so quickly. It’s amazing how quickly things have taken off.
So how exactly are these sessions being funded?
As a parent of a child with disabilities, I know that it is really hard for a lot of us to be able to be in employment. For many families of children with disabilities, the money simply is not there, and skiing is not a cheap sport. So the only way to make it accessible was to deliver these sessions free of charge.
My husband and I have paid for everything up until now. Cardiff Ski Centre has also been amazing. I need to obtain funding, but if I’m unsuccessful then, in the long run, I may need to charge out. But I am not doing that unless I really have to.
What feedback have you had so far?
When you see the mission statement on the Facebook page, the parents actually helped to write that to say how it has been helping their children. So that was really good for them to have that input. There is no point in me just doing what I want to do. All of the families need to be involved every step of the way.
What drives you?
I absolutely love seeing the kids’ reactions. I don’t think there is anything else that can make you feel the way it does when you help people that you know are really struggling with a new situation.
I have lived it, I have got Multiple Sclerosis myself. For me, had I sat back and done nothing when I was first diagnosed, I would probably be in a wheelchair right now. I just want other young people to know that they don’t have to sit back either. There is a whole world out there that you can go and enjoy. If we can help people do that, then that is what we are going to do.
Where does ski smiles go from here?
My one year plan is to be running every week. If we can do that, we can accommodate so many more children.
My three-year plan, I would love to see a ski smiles at every dry ski-slope in the UK. In every place where there is a dry ski-slope, the opportunity needs to be there that facilitates for these kids.
If you would like to find out more about Ski Smiles, you can find them on Facebook and Twitter.