Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra
Kathy Copeland aims high, so it’s no surprise to find her living at 11,053 feet on Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierras, the highest summit of any California ski resort. It is here where Copeland’s snow spirit unfolded its great wings as a ski instructor running the Kids and Adaptive Disability Programs for the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. After retiring in her early fifties, Copeland created her own nonprofit organization, which later became Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. With a goal to restore and rehabilitate the whole person, DSES offers outdoor mountain challenges that are customized and adapted to each individual’s abilities, adult or child.
Copeland says, “Two years after opening our doors, an unkempt guy rolls into our office in a power wheelchair with the biggest dark cloud hanging over his head. He says, ‘I want to try this!’ He had grey colored skin and dripped with despair. At 56, Terry Smutney was a veteran of the Gulf War. His lower limbs didn’t function due to neurological damage from inhaling toxic gasses and chemicals, like Agent Orange.”
Working with the program in the great outdoors, Smutney slowly returned to life, as he became a proficient mono skier, a volunteer with DSES, and a man with new meaning and purpose. “His experience with the program was a life changer for him and for us,” says Copeland.
Smutney then encouraged Copeland to meet his San Diego military buddies around a campfire at the beach. That year, two or three more veterans joined the DSES program and by 2007, DSES began the Wounded Warrior Programs collaborating with Camp Pendleton and the Naval Medical Center, San Diego. The following year DSES also became a Paralympic Sports Club.
Today, this all-inclusive program gives 3,500 year-round lessons in skiing, kayaking, cycling, climbing, and other mountain sports. DSES programs are open to all U.S. Military Services, veterans of any age, from any branch of service, with any illness or injury, combat related or not. With a trained team of dedicated staff and volunteers DSES offers expert instruction with adaptive equipment designed to empower individuals of any disability.
Local Del Mar residents Ken and Barbara Kubarych are two of those dedicated volunteers. “Empowering students ranging from autistic children to gravely wounded vets is the most transformative work we have ever done” says Barbara.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area has gifted lifetime free skiing to all veterans who completed the DSES program and Copeland is investing in their future by building the National Wounded Warrior Center to house up to 200 service men and women a year. Here they will learn new vocational skills at the adjacent community college, heal their bodies and minds through mountain sports, and find joy and purpose to living again. (760.934.0791, www.woundedwarriorsmammoth.org) INGRID HOFFMEISTER