Small Champions is a non-profit organization committed to enhancing and improving quality of life by providing recreational opportunities for eligible youth with multiple disabilities who are residents of Eagle County, Colorado. Individuals receive needs based instruction to support their developmental progress. We collaborate with and educate community organizations, and generate sustainable funding and services.
Small Champions is a program for children ages 5 through 21 years with cognitive, physical, and multiple disabilities including but not limited to, cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, epilepsy, traumatic brain injuries, motor and sensory integration, processing disorders, and many other unique developmental and genetic disabilities. Small Champions provides benefits through one-on-one coaching in skiing/snowboarding, bowling in the winter, and tennis, horseback riding (hippotherapy), gymnastics, swimming, golf, rock climbing, boating and paddle boarding in the summer. We also offer an annual one-week summer camp in partnership with the Vail Recreation District. New in 2021, we have partnered with Mountain Recreation to provide more opportunities for our children to participate in day camps, swimming lessons, and gymnastic lessons at Mountain Recreation facilities. Children work with an instructor specially trained in adaptive teaching techniques and use special equipment to accommodate a wide variety of disabilities. Small Champions hopes to provide an opportunity for these special children to be part of a group from the same community that meets often to enjoy sports, grow, learn and have fun.
The program was founded in 1996 and has grown in the past 15 years from 5 children to over 70. There are currently almost 900 children in the Eagle County school district with individual education plans (IEP's) and of that group it is estimated that more than 200 children fit the profile for Small Champions. Currently there is not another program in Eagle County which provides a recreation based program for these particular children.
It is also very important for our Small Champions to have a peer group, and for their families to forge friendships enabling them to support each other. Small Champions recruits volunteers from the community who are available to offer assistance and friendship while experiencing a sport with the participants. We believe that recreational education encourages independence and life skills that are otherwise not attainable for many of the individuals that we serve. The aim is to increase each child's personal development by providing well developed programs in which children learn to set, and then achieve goals.
These quotes from the Special Education teachers and the families of these Small Champions are a true testament to how important this Program is to our Community. I think these quotes give you just a little insight as to how the families here in the Vail Valley feel about what Small Champions has done for them. Small Champions changes lives on a daily basis.
Comments from Special Education Teachers:
" Small Champions is an incredible program that allows my students opportunities that they may not otherwise have, whether it is skiing on the mountain, rock climbing in the summer, or meeting with others families for events, such as bowling nights. It allows unstructured time for students with disabilities to engage in fun and motivating activities. Often times, my students with disabilities can be overwhelmed with the daily tasks and learning that happens at school, and Small Champions is a wonderful program for my students to look forward to on the weekends and in the summer. Many of my students have formed close relationships with their Small Champion coaches, which can go beyond just the Small Champions get-togethers. My students also come back to school and talk about their fun weekend skiing with their Small Champion coaches. As a special education teacher, I am grateful for the dedication that Small Champions has for our community, families, and our students with special needs. Small Champions opens up many opportunities for our students and their families to experience in our community and I am thankful for their support and the community at large that supports Small Champions. It is a much needed program for my students in this community.
Thank you, John, for working so closely with Eagle County Schools, to ensure that our students with disabilities, can have an opportunity to experience the many amazing things this community has to offer. We appreciate you and all people that make Small Champions such a success!"
Special Education Teacher
June Creek Elementary
"I have seen many benefits!
The bond between the small champion and the instructor often goes beyond the ski sessions. Henry and Ben spend tons of time together. Henry has written speeches about Ben for his classes and often talks about him.
I have seen an increase in language in my students who are quiet or nonverbal.
They have made connections to academic articles they read because of the background knowledge they have on skiing and snowboarding.
My students are so happy to talk about their skiing experiences with their coaches in school. Increasing the communication between teachers and students.
They get a chance to make and see friends outside of school. This is something my students don't always get a chance to do otherwise.
My students are becoming more active and physically fit. This is important as they grow.
Parents get a break for a few hours. Not something they get very often.
These are only a few off the top of my head! I am sure there is so much more!"
Special Education Teacher
Berry Creek Middle School
Comment from parents:
"Small Champions has given him something great to talk about so his speech has improved and my husband and I feel that Small Champions has helped us to begin to dream for our son again."
"My son has benefited immensely from therapeutic horseback riding with Kathy Mikolasy. It has helped his balance and speech improve. He loves to learn about life on a ranch and helps groom and feed the horses. His lessons with Kathy have also taught him about appropriate behaviors with animals in general."
"Jim and I had tried to teach Henry how to ski when we lived in Maine. Not only are neither of us great skiers, but we also lacked the instructional skills necessary to teach him well. When we decided to move to Colorado, and the Vail Valley, which we picked specifically because of the Small Champions network (in addition to the desire to live in the mountains, skiing was bound to be a focus. For these past two years, we have seen Henry make amazing progress. The thing is, it is not only as a skier, but also as a kid. He learns how to interact with people, wait his turn, persevere, and love skiing. Without the individual attention that Henry receives from a skilled instructor, he would not be able to enjoy skiing like he does. We are proud of his skill acquisition and even more proud of his social development. Simply not possible without Small Champions.
Oh, and then there is the horseback riding...
The day before we took him to meet Kathy, we went to a stable where Henry could ride a pony. He wanted NOTHING to do with that! He did not even want to stand near the pony! Then we went for our first horseback riding lesson. Kathy introduced Henry to Sox and I simply stated, "he might not want to get on". Kathy climbed up on Sox, into the saddle, we brought the step stool over and she said, "Get on up here with me". He did. He climbed right up! As soon as they started moving together in the saddle, Henry shouted "Yee Haw!" And that was that. Now, we can't get Henry off of Sox... he loves Kathy, Sox, the entire thing. Again, no Small Champions? No chance. Thanks, Small Champions."
Another mother of a Champion
"In the past Richie has done a couple of sessions of group swim lessons, frustrating for all. He was so overwhelmed with the other kids he didn't even get in the water! This year he has had 2 private swim lessons, so far, at the GRC, amazing the difference. He is in the water, enjoying learning to swim. I have no doubt my small champion will be a swimmer! This is such an essential life safety skill, thank you very much for the opportunity!
Richie has also been to 1 horseback riding lesson. I believe this program is a real confidence builder. His nervousness around the horse was gone before the end of the lesson. They walked and trotted and even rode backwards! He was so proud! Cant wait for the next lesson. Thank you!
Cant say enough about your summer camp! Richie has a blast. Only camp he has been to where there were no tears or tantrums getting out the door in the morning. He has fun with the other campers! Wish camp was a couple of days a week all summer. You guys do an awesome job! Thanks again for all you do!"
Comments from parents:
"When I told my son about horseback riding, he got upset and crying and said he was scared, so I was sure our first day was not going to go well, but that was not true. Our first day he connected with Kathy, his instructor, and the horses like he had been around them his whole life. To this day it gives him a sense of confidence like I have never seen."
"Jeffrey now enjoys horseback riding and is no longer afraid of being around large animals like horses - instead they calm and center him. He is learning how horses behave and how to communicate to them with the reins and verbal commands. It is encouraging his ability to communicate, listen and balance."
"When I explain to others the value of Small Champions summer program, I get a lump in my throat. Horse therapy is one of the greatest ways to work with our son. It is where everything is integrated - physical therapy for sensory integration, focus and attention, the relationship between social cues and social response with the horses and the cultivation of a very relationship with his Small Champions instructor. We see all the work that he does come together there. Some days when he arrives "stuck" in a bad mood in that Asperger's way, you can see how Kathy and the horses help him to find that "good" place again. Connor carries these lessons with him and learns to use them when he feels frustrated or angry. When we see Connor ride, we are amazed at how far he has come and it gives us hope that one day he'll live and work in an independent life and that he'll be happy."
Kathy Mikolasy - Instructor Hippotherapy (Horse Therapy):
I had never met Caden until last Wednesday. He had never come out to ride with Small Champions because he really didn't want to. He had a bit of a fear of horses and he just "didn't want to". I had met his Mom, Sally, at the Small Champions Benefit Golf Tournament in May and encouraged her to come out and visit us at the Ranch. She called and we made an appointment and agreed to just see how it went and if Caden wasn't interested, we wouldn't force the issue. But I, of course, knew better. So often this is how it starts. Caden came out and had the time of his life. I introduced Caden to Sox and a big smile appeared and from there it just got better and better. By the time we were finished riding, Caden sat in a chair and seemed exhausted. He was very quiet, but about every 3 or 4 minutes he would shake his head, smile, and say "I just had the most fun ever!" His grin went from ear to ear, he couldn't wait to make his next appointment and he left feeling like he had just accomplished one of the most fun "things" he had ever done!!!!! The feeling of accomplishment and the pride that he left the Ranch with cannot be measured. It can be a life changing experience that fills these kid with self-confidence and pride that they may not get in other areas of their lives. Caden is visually impaired with no sight in his right eye and 20/200 vision in his left eye when wearing his glasses. He may not excel in some areas of his life because of this disability, but when he left the barn he was "6 feet tall with a feeling of accomplishment and pride."