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Making outside sports accessible for everyone

From working with autistic children to adapting equipment for paraplegics, DSES believes that no one should be left behind because of a disability.

Anyone who has come in contact with Kathy Copeland, Executive Director of Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra (DSES), will tell you that she is a force of nature. Overflowing with energy and positivity, Copeland began her career as a ski instructor before taking over the children’s ski school and adaptive programs at Mammoth Mountain. The first time the Special Olympics came to Mammoth, something clicked with Copeland.

“I just thought, wow, this fits — I’ve found my tribe!” she says.

Copeland participated every year after that, and became more involved as an instructor at Mammoth Mountain, becoming certified to teach people with disabilities and going on to run both programs for more than 25 years until she retired. After spending a short time in retirement, Copeland came up with a proposal to launch DSES in 2003.

“I found that it was the right thing at the right time — there was a lot of interest in the population with autism, wounded warriors were coming back, and it was definitely the right place to do this. Mammoth Mountain fully supported me as well. It exploded really quickly after that,” she recalls.

Through events and programs, this California organization supports people with all types of disabilities in experiencing outdoor sports such as skiing, mountain biking, and rock climbing. From working with autistic children to adapting equipment for paraplegics, DSES believes that no one should be left behind because of a disability.

group shot of service members and veterans at ski resort From Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, wounded, injured, and ill service members and veterans from across the country participated in adaptive skiing, snowboarding, and community programs. (Photo: Wayne Smith)

They also believe that the excitement of outdoor challenges can change lives. One of the most popular programs they offer is ski lessons, which is tailored to the individual.

As Laura Beardsley, DSES’s Deputy Director says, “A lesson for one person could be completely different in terms of instruction and equipment. When individuals come into the program, we spend a lot of time doing an initial assessment. The goal is to get them out there having fun and challenging themselves, and really feeling that thrill of participating in outdoor sports.”

Most of the lessons are on-hill skiing, snowboarding, or in cross country. Two other programs that DSES operates are an Alpine Ski and Race Camp and Operation Mountain Freedom. The camp is part of their paralympic development programs which help athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments explore opportunities within the Paralympic Games.

ski instructor helps disabled person on the slopes Through events and programs, this California organization supports people with all types of disabilities in experiencing outdoor sports. (Photo: Wayne Smith)

The coaching includes skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, and cycling. Operation Mountain Freedom is a week-long camp for wounded warriors and this was the thirteenth year that Mammoth Mountain hosted the program.

They also have plans to open a Wounded Warrior Center in the town. It will be a fully-accessible, state-of-the-art facility that intends to accommodate up to 300 people at any given time.

The goal is to empower wounded, ill, and injured veterans by helping them to transition into civilian life through education, rehabilitation, and wellness. These wounded warriors will have access to learn a new vocation through the local community college, as well as to heal physical and psychological wounds.

DSES also operates Second Chance Thrift Shop, which is a major income stream for the organization. It is part of a workability program with the high school, where they train young adults in job skills.

rendering of a wounded warrior facility A rendering of the Wounded Warrior Center, which will be a fully-accessible, state-of-the-art facility that intends to accommodate up to 300 people at any given time. (Photo: Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra)

When individuals turn 22 they are essentially “aged out” of the program, but Copeland has committed to hiring them full- or part-time, because as she puts it, “We believe in taking care of our staff.” The store has been open seven years now.

The organization currently has over 200 volunteers a year, and about 24 employees when they are fully staffed during the ski season. They are continuing to grow exponentially, and are working on the ground to serve more people. The community of Mammoth Lakes is incredibly supportive, and both women are appreciative of that.

“And that’s why we’re all here, that’s why we have such engaged volunteers, such great parents. One of the greatest things about DSES for me is the community, we really operate with a real family, everyone who is a part of what we do is part of our family,” Beardsley says.

“And the whole community supports us, and is part of what we do. It is very much a group effort,” Copeland agrees.

Danielle Bauter headshot

Danielle Bauter is a freelance writer from California who loves writing about people and organizations that are dedicated to making the world a better place. Her work has been published in ELLE, Ms. Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and the Orange County Register. She is also a devoted bibliophile and writes a monthly column about books for Coast Magazine.

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