Eagle Mount helps people with disabilities
By Charley Lyman
For disabled people who need help having fun, Montana’s Eagle Mount programs can help.
From offices in Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls, Eagle Mount provides recreation for people of all ages and just about any disability. The Bozeman office also runs Big Sky Kids, a summer camp for cancer patients and their parents.
Eagle Mount’s parent entity, the “I Am Third Foundation” (named from Matthew 22:1 in the Bible), oversees for Eagle Mount and Big Sky Kids. The foundation was the beginning of a realization of a dream for what many describe as a caring, able and deeply religious couple.
Bob and Greta Mathis had wanted to build a summer camp for disabled kids. Bob, a business consultant and retired Air Force general, says his inspiration came from his wife, who had spent her career working with children with disabilities. She says if she was the inspiration, he’s the one who “did all the hard work - the fund raising, establishing non-profit status, and all that.”
Their son, Harry, and Cyndi Fonda convinced the Mathises that building a camp would take too much time. “These two young people said we don’t need a camp, just programs,” says Bob Mathis. “If you wait to build a camp, no one is getting help.”
In 1983 they set up a ski program at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman. “We thought we’d have 20 to 25 skiers in the program,” Mathis says. They had to cut it off at 94 when they ran out of volunteers. “That showed us we really had a need.”
Eagle Mount-Bozeman’s executive director, Linda Griffith, says 874 volunteers and 649 participants took part in recreation programs through her office last year. In addition to skiing, activities range from horseback riding to horticulture. Such an array of services for so many different people sets Eagle Mount far apart from most similar organizations. Rather than one activity or disability being served, they have as many of both as can be handled.
“We have a range of programs under one roof, so people with disabilities and kids with cancer can have a comprehensive and consistent therapeutic program,” says Griffith. She first became involved with Big Sky Kids as a participant with her daughter, who had cancer.
Eagle Mount in Bozeman also offers popular aquatic-therapy sessions and a well-known hippotherapy (therapy with the use of horses) program. Hippotherapy is the use of horses in physical therapy. A horse’s gait affects a rider’s hip and leg muscles quite similarly to the way walking does, so riding horses can be quite useful to people with walking ailments. Eagle Mount in Bozeman also offers programs from ice skating to horticulture.
Griffith’s daughter, Alanah, is a cancer survivor who has been involved in many Eagle Mount programs and has served as a counselor at Big Sky Kids. Now at age 25, she is taking a break from recreational therapy to become a law student at the University of Montana. When Alanah was sick, many people thought she couldn’t do certain things. But as life-long skier, she took to the hills with Eagle Mount.
She made close friends on the slopes and says she discovered “I couldn’t be held back in any way, and I could decide what I could and couldn’t do. When I was diagnosed, they gave me a day to a week to live.” Alanah says Eagle Mount and Big Sky Kids have allowed her to “step outside of my life and admit I was scared and to find other people who could admit that they were scared.”
As an instructor, she remembers having a girl in the ski program who couldn’t talk or move. “We put her in a bi-ski,” Alanah recalls. “She could lean right and left, and she could laugh and smile and grab our hands. It was amazing to give that to her. It had to be given to her because she couldn’t get it herself. It’s as close to true altruism as I can get.”
Of all the things that Eagle Mount has done to affect her life was being able to meet the late Mathew Davis, of Joliet, Mont. He had such drive that he would go hunting with one leg, while sick from chemotherapy. She aims for such spirit and she says his name comes up frequently in conversation. Parents also benefit from Eagle Mount, since they rarely get the chance to talk to other parents about their children’s illnesses. Lasting relationships among them have resulted. The children, meanwhile, have relatively more support methods. “The parents can talk about what it’s like to have a young person with cancer,” Greta Mathis says. “A lot of these kids are the only ones who have cancer in the whole town.”
Eagle Mount in Billings caters to disabled skiers at Red Lodge ski area and offers a summer camp for kids of all disabilities. Eagle Mount in Great Falls has a day camp as well and provides equestrian, skiing, rafting and ice-skating programs.
Almost every day of the ski season, the slopes of Red Lodge and Bridger Bowl near Bozeman have Eagle Mount participants skiing down the slopes under their own power or on a variety of devices. On a January afternoon, Jon Williamson and his son, Mike, were skiing with Eagle Mount volunteer Scott Wiseman down one of Bridger’s lower runs.
Williamson was strapped in a seat on a mounted on a bi-ski, one of several devices for handicapped people to get down the slopes. Williamson skied closely behind, loosely holding straps attached to the bi-ski’s seat. Williamson made graceful turns, his son at his side. Wiseman only had to give Williamson a gentle tug twice to check his descent.
“We ski this whole mountain except for steep moguls and stuff like that,” says Williamson. Eagle Mount’s volunteers, participants and personnel think like Williamson does: Having fun is good for you.
The Eagle Mount-Billings director gives another example of how the programs have helped people with disabilities. A girl about 10 years old was in a swimming program Mendi Krumm was helping out with. The group got together for a picture. As Krumm explains it, the photographer told them to say “banana,” right before taking the picture. “Everyone smiled and said ‘banana,’ including her. It was one of the first perfectly formed words she had spoken.” Doctors had once said the girl might never talk. “It made everything hit home,” Krumm adds. “I think that is when I realized so much can happen in having fun. All those things they have to work on can happen in the spontaneity of having fun.”
Future plans call for Eagle Mount to open a fourth office in Missoula, where a needs-assessment is being done. They don’t want to duplicate local services already in place. “What we usually find is the need is there,” Linda Griffith says.
It seems Eagle Mount’s success is limited only by the amount of its volunteers. One participant, for example, might need as many as three people assisting. Volunteers and other helpful folks have helped Kevin Connolly immensely.
From East Helena, Mont., the 14-year-old Connolly took first in the 1999 U.S. National Disabled Ski Championships. He was born without legs and he uses a sit-ski. In 1999 he placed third in an able-bodied citizen’s race, and he eventually wants to compete in the Paralympics, the international sports competition for athletes with physical disabilities.
Eagle Mount would also like to build an aquatic center in Bozeman and eventually become a year-round, full-service facility. In addition to Missoula, the Flathead Valley is also seen as a possible area for expansion. Cities in other states have also shown an interest in their programs. Before they do all that, however, Linda Griffith says Eagle Mount must maintain the programs they already have. A steady vision is needed, a vision she says she shares with her office’s founders.
“They shall mount up with wings as eagles,” from Isaiah 40:31, which is what the Mathises named Eagle Mount after.
In no small way, the couple has allowed it to fly.