A benefit concert for Arise’s inclusive ski program hits all the right notes
Photos by James R Evans
Money for something: Friday’s fundraising dinner and concert will help Arise purchase more bi-skis like the one this disabled skier is using, with assistance from two volunteers.Skiers are the pollyannas of winter, reveling in the latest snow totals, breaking out the bulky sweaters (guilty, Mike Brookins!) and waxing the equipment for quicker glides down the runs. But imagine the feeling of skiing when your normal mode of transportation is a wheelchair or you are paraplegic, or as you’re watching your non-verbal, autistic child smile as he descends the hill.
Arise, which serves the disabled population in eight upstate New York counties, has given its clients the thrill of the slopes since 1996. That’s when Christopher Weiss and his then-wife Melissa Hall co-founded Arise & Ski; he has watched the program grow from one participant to 80 skiers and snowboarders, with a waiting list each winter. As a top-notch downhill skier who lives in Central New York, Weiss acknowledges that the slopes around here aren’t exactly Alpine; they aren’t even Rocky-like. Guiding Arise & Ski fuels his vicarious-thrill meter.
“If I were just a skier in Central New York,” he says, “I think I would get a little bored of the local hills. For me, for my own pleasure, I want to be skiing down a ledge. I can’t do that here, but what I can do is enjoy that challenge through the people I work with at Arise. I love that, the notion of accessibility. Prior to our program existing, those in a wheelchair were, for the most part, shutins for the winter.”
And while grants and United Way funding help keep Arise & Ski going, accessible ski equipment trends toward the expensive: $3,000 for one bi-ski with seat, for example. Arise owns all of its equipment, having purchased it by the piece, but some of it is simply worn out, or replacement parts no longer exist. At the same time, Arise & Ski requires dozens of volunteers, people who deserve to be thanked for the hours they devote to helping the disabled get out and enjoy the cold and snow.
So a fund-raiser was in order, but also a thank-you party. “We ask people for donations to pay for the equipment, but what we really need to do is thank the community for the support they continue to give us and also provide information about our ski program in a fun context,” says Weiss, whose day job is helping counsel economically disadvantaged students at Syracuse University. Thus was born “Arise Up Singing,” Friday, Oct. 29, an evening of folk and acoustic music from the talented performers at the Folkus Project. Hawley-Green eatery Sparky Town owner Linda Mortimer is providing a catered dinner; beware, the reservation deadline for the food has passed.
“Come for the music anyway,” exhorts Nancy Kronen, director of development and public relations at Arise, headquartered on James Street. Performing on Friday will be Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Dana “Short Order” Cooke, Wendy Ramsay, Joanne Perry and Weiss, himself a singer-songwriter.
As for the involvement of Folkus, Cooke, president of the Folkus board, says the group hardly blinked. “When Folkus looked at this as an opportunity to get involved, we thought the type of music we present fits the event,” Cooke says. “We present a certain set of concerts over the year, but we also imagine ourselves partnering with other organizations as a way of broadening our mission and spreading our music. All music has community-building impact and promotional currency, so when you run into an organization that’s putting its heart out the way the Arise program does, it makes sense to bring our music into the mix. It was an easy call.”
Weiss’ involvement with both groups was a factor as well, Cooke says. “Chris Weiss happens to be a friend of the organization, involved off and on over the years, a longtime folk fan and an occasional performer. So there is a natural affinity between him and the organization.” Weiss acknowledges the synergy as well. “It occurred to me that many of these musicians are also sports enthusiasts,” he notes, “and some are skiers. One person that will be performing has a family member who was in our ski program, so that’s pretty cool. Hopefully, we’ll recruit a few more volunteers or find some new participants. It’s not essential that we make bazillions of dollars doing this, but we also want to provide information and a fun evening out.”
The ultimate goal is to provide winter fun for the ski program’s participants, and Arise staff further acknowledges that wouldn’t be possible without Toggenburg Mountain. Not only is Arise welcome to the Fabius slopes six weekends in January and February, but Toggenburg charges the group nothing, nada, zip, zilch.
“We walk in at 7 a.m., and it doesn’t matter what’s going on, we rearrange furniture, we carve out one-quarter of the lodge for our use, they put up ‘reserved’ signs for us,” says Richelle Maki, respite program coordinator at Arise who also helps Weiss, as a volunteer. “Everyone at Toggenburg supports us in ways you couldn’t believe, including free hot chocolate for the skiers.”
Weiss grew up skiing at Toggenburg—his father was friends with the people there who started the ski patrol—and he has taught there since 1975. “The staff out there has always been very supportive of working with people with disabilities,” he says. “They station people at the top of the lift to make sure when people get off, they’re safe.”
Adds Kronen: “The value of Toggenburg’s contribution is just enormous.”
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