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The National Ability Center is a facility conceived with a unique purpose. This is where you come to recover from a disability, whether it be physical or cognitive, regardless of your age (minimum age is 5 or 8, depending on program) and background, or where you bring a family member for therapy while you vacation together. The center's mission is "the development of lifetime skills for people of all ages and abilities by providing affordable sports and recereational experiences in a nurturing environment." The objective of the program is to build self-esteem, confidence and physical development.

Opened in 1985, this non-profit organization offers many programs including skiing, snowboarding and snow shoeing, therapeutic horseback riding, adventure learning programs, indoor rock climbing, swimming, cycling, water-skiing, rafting and camping trips, and more. Most participants go out for horseback riding and hippotherapy (using a horse to provide physical activity therapy), next in popularity being adventure learning (hiking, rafting, etc.), and wall climbing. Some years, they say, individuals and their families participated in more than 25,000 lessons and outings.

There were some Iraq War veterans in programs this year (to help with their post traumatic stress disorder problems), and many young people in the 20-plus types of programs on offer. Occasionally, the center takes participants on field trips to such places as Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon or Jackson Hole, to name only three places, by van. Of the thousands of participants here, the majority were family members and peers, then individuals with psychological or emotional disabilities, people suffering from autism, cerebral palsy, or Down Syndrome.

There are 26 fully-accessible, double-occupancy rooms, a huge indoor horseback riding arena, outdoor arena, challenge course, and more. The center has been in operation only since 1985. Its director told me it is the largest provider of adaptive recreational facilities in the world. They can boast, also, of having the world's only adaptive bobsled team. You can train here for any purpose, including, they say, for the Paralympics (for physically challenged participants) or the Special Olympics (for cognitively challenged participants, such as those with autism, for instance). The center's Adaptive Ski Program is especially successful. Its origins go back as far as the Vietnam War, when Alta residents Edward and Flo Pauls designed the outrigger ski so that veterans missing one or both legs could still enjoy the sport of skiing the nearby slopes.

It was inspiring to see participants being hoisted up in wheelchairs to a platform some 40 feet in the air as part of an adventure program, and to watch as children with physical disabilities were encouraged to ride horseback, carefully held by therapists walking alongside them, to strengthen their bodies and encourage self confidence.

The cost is relatively low, and in some cases, scholarship grants or subsidies are available. ("We never turn anyone away if they cannot afford the fee.") Staff members either have degrees in social work or certificates in recreational therapy, I was told, and volunteers provide much of the support necessary to keep the operation going. Prominent donors such as the Bronfman and Marriott families have given large grants to the center. Founder Meeche White is retiring this year after running the show for 23 years

Contacts

The National Ability Center Recreation Center & Ranch is located at 1000 Ability Way, Park City UT 84098; tel. 435/649-3991; www.discovernac.org.