Special Olympics Fresno chapter helps kids hone more than just skiing skills

This time of year China Peak is swarmed with skiers and snowboarders looking to take the slopes.

For three days in February, that includes the Special Olympics.

"Because the athletes love to ski. Just like any other person they love to get up on the hill and ski," said Michael Preciado.

From a program that started with just two athletes, this year, 80 athletes with intellectual disabilities competed in cross-country skiing. And up the mountain Alpine skiing.

This Fresno chapter is the only one to offer the sport in all of California.

Medals are given out to the top three finishers. For an athlete like Jared Schmidt, who's been coming for 28 years, it's a chance to add to his collection.

"152 medals. Holy smokes. Yes," said Schmidt.

But the competition is only part of the story.

"Special Olympics is all about social skills. Independent skills. Students are staying away from home for the first --- have you ever stayed away from home? No it's my first time. You're staying in a cabin without mom and dad. You're having to take care of yourself. Take a shower, get dressed (and) do all that stuff independently," said Patrick Gerrits, a volunteer from Bullard High School.

The three-day trip comes at no cost to the athletes. China Peak covers all of the rentals and lift tickets. Shaver Lake covers the cabins.

"It's a big community partnership with all of it."

Some of the volunteers even come up from local high schools.

"I don't think there's a lot of programs where people take special kids out into the snow and teach them things to do, so it's not an easy task. I mean I know I struggled with it when I tried to learn," said Gabrielle Vanderschelden, another volunteer from Bullard High School.

For the parents of these athletes, seeing how this program changes their child is something to remember.

"I remember the first time I cried. Now I'm kind of used to it. Still kind of gets me watery. It's really special," said April Butterfield, the parent of an athlete.

It's a one-of-a-kind program that's changing perspectives and giving dozens of local athletes the chance to compete.
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