Breaking Barriers: Ascendigo empowers, elevates valley locals with autism
On a recent Saturday morning at Buttermilk Ski Area, dozens of young skiers turned their way through trees and groomed snow, weaving down one by one in loose lines following lone instructors.
It was a bluebird day, and lots of giggles from kids and directions from instructors could be heard on nearly every West Buttermilk run. But there was one voice of encouragement that carried over the rest.
“Nice job, Miguel, you’re doing so great!” shouted Andy Adams, a life skills trainer with Ascendigo, as he followed the lesson group his skiing buddy Miguel, 10, was in line with.
For the past three winter seasons, Adams and Miguel have spent most Saturdays skiing together through the Ascendigo autism services nonprofit’s skiing program, Miguel learning as part of an Aspen Skiing Co. lesson group and Adams supporting him all the way.
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And over those three years, Adams said Miguel has grown immensely as a young skier and a person.
“Miguel has grown so much over the past three years, he’s doing a lot more french fry and a lot less pizza,” Adams said, smiling.
“It makes me so happy and proud to know that we can give kids like Miguel this experience, where a decade ago there was no program like this.”
Since 2004, Ascendigo has worked to support and empower people with autism, like Miguel, first through an annual summer sports camp and now through a variety of year-round programming.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to the Autism Speaks national nonprofit website.
But through Ascendigo, trained staff and volunteers aim to “elevate the spectrum,” empowering valley locals with autism and helping them defy expectations, as explained by Peter Bell, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.
“This organization was founded on the belief that people with autism can do activities everyone thinks would be impossible. We make the impossible possible,” Bell said.
“We really operate on the assumption that we’re here to elevate the spectrum and what it’s like to be someone who has a condition on the autism spectrum, allowing them to reach their potential and to shatter expectations either they have for themselves or that others might have for them.”
Bell has been Ascendigo’s president and CEO since 2017, but he and his family have been involved with the nonprofit much longer. Both of his sons attended the annual summer camp in the nonprofit’s early years, one as a camper and the other as a camp counselor.
So when the opportunity to lead Ascendigo presented itself to Bell, who has held leadership roles with several autism advocacy organizations across the U.S., he took it.
“It’s really hard to contest what it’s like to live in this valley and to be in a place that not only is beautiful in terms of its surroundings, but really is a community that has been developed over the course of 15 years to be quite frankly one of the most autism-friendly places in the country,” Bell said.
Through its winter skiing program, summer adventures camp, life enrichment and skills training, Saturday adventures club, and multitude of other individual and family support services, Bell said Ascendigo strives to both support children and adults with autism, helping them be successful members of the Roaring Fork Valley community, while also giving back to the larger community.
One of those larger community members who has seen the benefits of partnering with Ascendigo is Aaron Taylor, director of the Way of Compassion Foundation, a Carbondale nonprofit that aims to provide “services that help people live meaningful lives,” according to its website.
Most every Thursday, Taylor said two Ascendigo clients come to the Way of Compassion center to help out with its community bike program, learning how to repair bikes and refurbish parts.
Since they’ve joined the project, Taylor said the two men, Dylan Jennings and Zachary Demeo have learned how to work in a team environment and have helped the bike project operate more effectively and efficiently.
“There’s been a lot of positive change,” Taylor said, noting the project is more organized and is able to process more donated bikes. “Dylan and Zach have developed a level of comfort in the shop and are able to engage more with everyone.”
Like Taylor, Adams, who works with several clients of all ages as a life skills trainer and culinary arts coach through Ascendigo, also sees the positive impacts Ascendigo programs have on both his buddies and the larger community.
From lift operators expressing excitement when they see his clients to ski area dining employees slipping them extra snacks, Adams feels the benefits of Ascendigo programs are equal for everyone involved — which is part of why he joined the nonprofit in the first place.
“Watching the breakthroughs, watching these guys grow and seeing the effect we have on their lives and they have on ours is just amazing,” said Adams, who has been with Ascendigo for four years.
“The population we deal with has a different view of the world, and the more we can integrate them into the community, the more we’ll have these beautiful interactions that benefit everybody.”
On Saturday, Ascendigo will celebrate its clients’ breakthroughs and community partnerships through its annual Ascendigo Blue Aspen fundraiser at the Hotel Jerome.
For Bell, he hopes the fundraiser helps Ascendigo continue to build awareness about autism and what it is, highlighting the progress the nonprofit and its Roaring Fork partners have made in helping valley locals with autism break barriers now and for years to come.
“Events like the one this weekend will hopefully raise a lot of awareness about who we are and what we do,” Bell said. “We get a lot and benefit from the community and we want to give back that gratitude. It really is a symbiotic relationship.”
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