By P.M. Fadden
Girdwood-based adaptive recreation complex, Challenge Alaska aims to increase volunteer activity over snow season 2018.
A 37 year-old non-profit organization, Challenge AK facilitates outdoor access, executed by an average 250 annual volunteers and tailored specifically to exceptional athletes.
“Volunteer instructors are the front line,” said Challenge Alaska Director Jeremy ‘Jaha’ Anderson. “They are a critical component to what we do.”
With Challenge since 2004, Anderson adds that 2018 volunteer positions remain available at Challenge AK, citing direct community impact and personal-meets-professional fulfillment as only two from many benefits to involvement.
Lauded as an engaging platform of interactive athletics-meets-learning, Challenge initiates a community-wide ripple to affect positive empowerment into volunteers, students and family.
Organization founder Douglas Keil is two-time Paralympics gold medalist and launched Girdwood’s Adaptive Ski and Snowboard School with a team of twelve, headquartered within a broom closet.
Thirty-seven years later, operating from Anchorage and Girdwood offices, Challenge annually serves 1,000-plus clients via year-round programming designed to strengthen both community and individual. Both Anchorage and Girdwood locations follow strict missions to facilitate lifestyle improvement, a goal that the organization overall achieves through pairing of education with adaptive athleticism or therapeutic recreation.
Challenge AK has held occupancy of its current Alyeska slopeside facilities since 1995, while off-snow events continue to be overseen from the adaptive sports school’s Anchorage Office. Locally, Challenge AK HQ, located at 426 Crystal Mountain Road, persists thanks to diligence of four paid staff directing a veritable army of volunteers.
“Part of my job was Volunteer Coordinator,” said Challenge staffer Mandy Anderson. “It was awesome to see how many people gave their time and expertise so freely.”
“Now I’m a volunteer, and I get it. You are part of something worthwhile, something that not only forms bonds between clients and volunteers but changes lives.”
“You are part of something worthwhile, something that not only forms bonds between clients and volunteers but changes lives.”
– Volunteer, Mandy Anderson
The Challenge AK experience offers complete flexibility of schedule to the volunteer via segmented lesson planning, while also training and compensating per degree of involvement.
“Volunteers and clients usually arrive around mid-morning,” Jeremy said of daily routines. “Our goal is to have athletes and vols on-snow by 10:30 a.m.”
“Morning lessons are 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., while afternoon lessons span 1:30-3:30 p.m. The hour break accommodates different personal schedules and opens a lunch or rest opportunity for clients and volunteers enjoying a full, morning plus afternoon at Challenge.”
Lesson formats emphasize personal, relaxed interaction between client and staffers. Instructors meet students at Challenge AK’s Girdwood location, readying gear as friends before commencing with beginner level laps.
“During the week, volunteers work with groups from school districts state-wide, including Girdwood School and Alyeska Resort’s Mountain Learning Center,” Jeremy explained. “We also have arrivals from all over the world, spending time in our bunk house as visiting athletes.”
“And on weekends or over afternoons, Challenge volunteers work with individually arriving clients of all experience and capability levels.”
“Challenge Alaska means so much to me,” shared parent Christina Rankin.
Rankin, mother to a 7 year-old with Cerebral Palsy, sees “heartstring-pulling” self-discovery and affirmation from her child, crediting Challenge AK’s professionalism for the resoundingly positive result.
“Their bottom of mountain lodge is comfortable,” Rankin said. “Their team brainstorms about adaptations to gear. The instructors take the time to learn my daughter’s strengths or weaknesses, and they engage her afterward with written accomplishments and goals for future lessons.”
Rankin explained that Challenge programming and volunteers aided her child to realize previously unknown abilities while enabling a joy any parent would feel.
“Our volunteers come from every imaginable background,” Jeremy continued. “They participate around full-time work schedules, arrive seasonally or only when free-time allows.”
“They bring with them past experience such as school teaching or decades of snowsport involvement,” he said. “Challenge individually works with each volunteer, creating a baseline level that balances the volunteer’s knowledge and previous experience working with disabled athletes.”
Challenge AK roles range from clinic involvement, to instructor shadowing or combinations in-between that match volunteer free time and desire levels.
“Challenge welcomes instructors on their schedule, working when they want to,” Jeremy said. “We aim to be a facet in instructor’s lives that creates balance with who they are. It’s completely flexible, and Challenge is open to everyone giving it a try.”
Challenge AK actively welcomes—current season especially–new participants from near or far, emphasizing mid-week scheduling and Girdwood School’s 6-week program as specific dates when volunteer opportunity exists.
“Fifteen to twenty instructors typically bunk with Challenge each year, staying and instructing from one to four weeks,” J. Anderson said of amenities available to volunteers. “Additionally, Challenge tries to accommodate established traveling volunteers who teach back-back days with lodging alternatives and, of course, there’s the opportunity to get a fair bit of skiing in.”
“Bottomline,” he said, “Challenge is a non-profit program carried by its volunteers.”
Participants often claim to benefit from the Challenge AK experience more than clients, a reward that retains previous instructors while hopefully drawing new talent interested in making a difference in people’s lives.
“Challenge is about ability not disability,” urged parent Jacque Quantrille. “Its programming and people taking the believed-to-be impossible and turning it into an amazingly awesome reality.”
“With the indispensible aid of Alyeska Resort, Challenge opens recreation options for people of all ability levels,” J. Anderson added. “We do it year-round, on the water, snow, trails and in the gym.”
“To volunteer is the essence of the Challenge Alaska experience.”