Lending a helping hand
Aspen’s Doug Gilstrap embraces the opportunity to inject new life and energy into a variety of properties.The Challenge Aspen ski instructor and property manager enjoys renewing once-overlooked buildings. Such transformations yield a sense of fulfillment for the Texas native.In many respects, Gilstrap applied a similar mind-set in 2004, when he was courted, then signed on as program director for Aspen’s extreme sports camp, which caters exclusively to autistic athletes. This summer – the camp’s third – the first of six week-long sessions begins Sunday with a houseboat water-skiing trip to Lake Powell. “I believe there’s a capability beyond what most people believe in these children,” Gilstrap said Wednesday.Autism, a complex developmental disability that affects an individual’s social interaction and communication skills, afflicts as many as 1.5 million Americans of all ages, according to the Autism Society of America.Cases nationwide have increased at an alarming rate in recent years, said camp founder Sallie Bernard, a chairwoman for Cure Autism Now, co-founder of Safe Minds and mother of an autistic child. While scientific data is inconclusive, studies indicate the rise may be the result of environmental factors (mercury levels, pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls) coupled with genetic predisposition. Bernard gave birth to triplet sons 18 years ago. Her son Bill was later diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, then autism at age 5. She soon recognized the need for a camp for autistic youngsters when she often sent her two other children, Jamie and Fred, off to summer camps while leaving Bill at home. The opportunities for Bill were either nonexistent or scaled back and overly simplistic.
The majority of camps open to those with autism include a “melting pot” of all disabilities, Gilstrap added; they don’t provide the necessary interaction and attention autistic campers need.”There’s no reason why these kids can’t do things as rigorous as anyone else,” Bernard said.Bernard observed the progress and joy her young son experienced while skiing with Gilstrap during family vacations in Snowmass. She moved the family to Aspen nearly five years ago to take advantage of the therapeutic quality of life in the mountains.”Exercise and being outdoors keeps the mind healthy,” she said.
Bernard, who recruited Gilstrap, first conceived an idea for a unique overnight experience in 2001. The two exercised great care when identifying sports and activities that would be feasible, given the clientele.”We had to do it carefully and think it through,” Bernard said. “We had to approach the learning process a little differently than we would a regular group of kids. We identified sports that would be fun, and those where kids could proceed and learn at their own levels.”Because the disorder affects each individual differently, and with varying degrees of severity, the camp had a major hurdle to overcome. Bernard and Gilstrap chose activities that would allow campers to progress at their own pace. Each camper would also have a buddy.Since 2004, young adults have participated in such sports as rock climbing, hiking, horseback riding and water skiing. This summer, the group has added three specialty camps – a travel camp to Lake Powell, a dancing and gymnastics camp (July 9-16), which will include instruction from a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, and a rock-climbing and ropes course session (July 30 through Aug. 6) – to the three general sessions. The first (July 23-30), will cater exclusively to campers 18 and older. The Aspen Camp School for the Deaf in Old Snowmass will house all campers. First-year executive director Elizabeth Miller expects 45 campers – nearly double the number for four sessions last year – to attend this summer.Close to half the campers are returning for their second or third years, Miller said.
“The kids love this camp,” Miller said. “They’re like new kids when they leave.”The camp is a personal endeavor for Bernard and her sons. She has watched Bill progress and watched her family turn misfortune into an opportunity to grow closer.”It’s hard to say what things would be like without it, but I can look back and say it’s actually been beneficial for them,” Bernard said of Jamie and Fred, who volunteer at the camp. “In some ways it’s probably been hard, but it’s given them a good perspective on things.”Gilstrap, who is all too familiar with the plight of the autistic children he works with on and off the slopes, said he sees the camp as his chance to make a difference. At a young age he was diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactive disorder, which studies show bears similarities to Asperger’s syndrome and autism. “I’m not out to open any eyes or set any goals or prove anything to anybody,” Gilstrap said. “My only mission is to get these kids to live a more fulfilled and happier life. No one knows where the edge is, and I push them harder than most people do.”Gilstrap still suffers the aftereffects of a skiing accident at Snowmass nearly eight years ago – he crashed into a tree, crushing one side of his face. To this day, he struggles to recall words, and string sentences and thoughts together.
As a result, he centers his work with disabled clients around hands-on instruction rather than verbal communication. This clear and concise method comes naturally to him, Gilstrap said.It also produces results. The progress campers have made during the past two summers has been “fascinating,” he said.Gilstrap has watched kids who couldn’t walk up a wheelchair ramp climb through a field of rocks. He has watched students “basking in the afterglow” of a long hike with smiles on their faces. The most rewarding experience came at the end of one session in 2004, Gilstrap said. He handed one camper an award and a T-shirt during a ceremony. The camper responded with a “thank you” – his first audible words ever.”These kids give my life more purpose than I ever thought it would have,” he said.For more information about the camp, or to volunteer, visit http://www.extremesportscamp.org, or call executive director Elizabeth Miller at 920-3695.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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