January 25, 2010
Lees-McRae alumna directs Ski Beech's Adaptive Snowsports Center

When nearly 200 people converged at Ski Beech for the 29th Annual Adaptive Snowsports Learn to Ski Clinic January 19-22, Lees-McRae graduate Natalie Burns couldn't have been more excited to be in attendance. Although it wasn't her first time participating in the event, her involvement this year was much more meaningful.

Burns took over as director of the Beech Adaptive Snowsports Center this season, and taught adaptive ski techniques during the four-day clinic alongside some of the country's best instructors including the event's coordinators Gene Gamber, ski program director of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, and Al Kaye, director of the Patricia Neal Innovative Recreation Cooperative out of Knoxville, TN.

The Adaptive Snowsports Learn to Ski Clinic at Ski Beech, sponsored by Disabled Sports USA, gives individuals of all abilities the chance to learn to ski. Many individuals with disabilities and/or special needs are able only to experience the excitement and freedom of skiing in a form adapted to their needs with the use of equipment including mono-skis and bi-skis.

Burns, who worked as a ski and snowboard instructor at Ski Beech for five years, began working in adaptive snowsports when she was introduced to it by Dee Thomas three years ago. Thomas was then the director of the program at Ski Beech, and was working part-time as director of Outdoor Programs at Lees-McRae.

Last winter Burns, who was then a volunteer with the program, and Thomas traveled together to Breckenridge, CO, to attend Ski Spectacular, hosted at the Breckenridge Ski Resort, where they received training in adaptive skiing. Burns knew right away she wanted to continue with the program.

When Thomas began working at Lees-McRae full-time, she knew she wouldn't be able to continue in her role as director of the program. Burns voiced her interest in taking over the program, and Thomas knew she was ready for the job.

"When Natalie said she was interested in taking over the program, I was thrilled. Because of her personality and her drive, she was the perfect choice to take over the program," Thomas said.

Although Burns is much younger than most of her counterparts at other ski resorts, her passion and commitment make up for the seeming lack of years in the industry.

"Teaching is a passion for me. I believe in the idea of making dreams and possibilities limitless," Burns said.

And that's exactly what she does on the slopes at Ski Beech. One volunteer with the program is George Gillespie, a Lees-McRae student who is confined to a wheelchair. Without adaptive snowsports, Gillespie would not have been able to experience the thrill of skiing.

"My favorite part is going fast," Gillespie said. "I also really like the view from the top of
the mountain."

Gillespie says he got the hang of it the first time with the help of Burns, who he describes as "fun to work with."

Burns enjoys the lessons equally as well. "Each new lesson is a new challenge and great experience!" said Burns. She traveled again this winter to Breckenridge for more training in adaptive snowsports, working toward her Level I adaptive ski instructor certification.

Thomas, who ran the program at Beech for eight years, continues to volunteer with the program organizing the many volunteers needed for training and lessons. Thanks to students and staff at Lees-McRae, she hasn't run into trouble in that area. Students Dan Morris, Collin Gundry, Kaylie Henne, George Gillespie and Corey Alexander make up a group Thomas considers the core volunteers and leaders in the program. Lees-McRae staff volunteers include Selena Hilemon, Scott Crawford and Mike Hughett.

Burns is excited about growing the program at Ski Beech and has arranged a fundraising event at Lees-McRae to help fund staff training and scholarships for participants in the program at Ski Beech.

The event is a celebration of winter with Warren Miller's latest film "Warren Miller's Dynasty" as the feature presentation. The film highlights the Monoskier X event of the Winter X Games, an extreme form of adaptive skiing that has competitors strapped into molded bucket seats perfectly balanced on single skis.

The film will be shown Friday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. in Evans Auditorium in the Cannon Student Center at Lees-McRae College. Admission is $5 for those without a valid Lees-McRae College student ID. All the proceeds will benefit the Ski Beech Adaptive Snowsports Center.

Photos: 1. Natalie Burns in her element as adaptive ski instructor with Lees-McRae volunteer Forrest Sickler seated in bi-skis.

2. Natalie Burns at Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado.

3. From left Forrest Sickler, Dee Thomas, George Gillespie (seated) and Natalie Burns practice adaptive ski techniques.

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