Written by Collen DuBose & Chris Nichols
The Deep Creek Lake Lions Club contributes to our area in a variety of ways, including an eyeglass assistance program, a recycling program, and management of the McHenry Community Park. However, the most prominent aspect of the DCL Lions Club is the long-standing Blind Skier Program.
According to their website, the Lions Club’s mission is “To improve the lives of the visually impaired and our local community members, with a special emphasis on outdoor recreation. Since 1973, we have been sharing the fun and challenge of downhill skiing with the visually impaired through our Blind Skier program.”
The history of the Blind Skiers actually began in 1970 when Bill Thoman, former mountain manager of Wisp Resort, and Jay Kamineck, a ski instructor, were skiing in Aspen, Colorado. They witnessed sighted volunteers assisting young people with vision challenges in skiing down a mountainside. Inspired, they brought the idea back to the east coast. Then after a few years the pair helped to found the Deep Creek Lake Lions Club and the Blind Skier Program. Since then, the Club has taught hundreds of visually impaired children to downhill ski. Additionally, a similar number of high schoolers have volunteered with the program over the years and have experienced the rewards of community service at an early age.
According to past president Chris Nichols: “While much has changed about skiing in the past 40 years, little has changed about the basics of the Blind Skier Program. The Club has continued the Program, hosting visually impaired skiers for three or four sessions every year.”
They work directly with the parents of the visually impaired children through the Maryland Federation of the Blind and less with the Maryland School for the Blind due to budget cuts and staffing issues at the school. Inclusion of the families of the visually impaired kids allows the parents to witness some of the important moments of their children learning to ski, and also provides them with some respite and mini vacation.
Since 1993, the Sighted Guide volunteer pool is filled with local high school students from Northern and Southern, who can earn Service Learning Hours for their time. The high school volunteers really relate well with the Blind Skier participants since they are often close in age, and the program also provides them with the opportunity to experience the value of service to others at a younger age. According to Chris, the Club now has adult members who served as guides when they were in high school.
The socialization aspect of the Program is also still very important. Club members visit their guests each morning to prepare breakfast. The Club also hosts all participants, family members and volunteers for a dinner each session where everyone gets a bit of public speaking experience by telling the group about their skiing experience so far. A highlight and tradition of these meetings is long-time Lion Ed King leading the kids in the camp song, “Dunderback”.
Throughout the years there have been a variety of fund-raisers for the program, including Winterfest at Wisp and various Las Vegas casino nights held at various restaurants, and their famous Roasted Chicken Dinners. The Club also held an annual Cardboard Box Derby at the Wisp in the early 2000’s. In 2013, the Club brought back the concept of a boat parade on Deep Creek Lake as a fundraiser and has been able to hold this event almost every year since. The Club has tried some other events like Poker Cruises, Redneck Regattas and Adventure Races in this time period as well. Since around 2015, the Club’s biggest fundraiser has been its annual Boat Auction. Boat owners can donate their boats to the Club and receive a tax deduction which the Club then sells at the auction. The donors often say that when they sign over the title it was their second-best day of owning the boat.
The Club has been able compound the success of the Blind Skiers with a similar summer program, the Blind Campers. During this Program, the participants and the families camp in tents, cook and dine al fresco, and get to experience the fun of swimming, tubing and even water-skiing on Deep Creek Lake. The camping portion of the program is sited at the McHenry Community Park on Bumble Bee Rd.
The park, owned by the County, but operated by the Club since 1981, is an important part of the Club’s mission. In addition to providing the community with free outdoor recreation features like a dog park, softball field, disc golf course, playing fields and picnic pavilion, it also allows the Club to showcase projects geared to opening access to a variety of ability levels. The Club has installed an art garden displaying pieces of art created by participants in the Blind Skier and Camper programs, showing that people who are visually impaired can create art that can be appreciated by all. The Club has also modified several of the disc golf holes and discs with remote-controlled beepers so they can be used by the visually impaired. In the planning stages are a free-use all-terrain wheelchair, and a playground accessible by kids of multiple ability levels.
At the park, the Club also highlights local history with Meshach Browning History Center. The Center features several interpretive historical panels on Browning’s life and times, 7 pieces (and growing) of outdoor art depicting Browning and 6 miles of trails. The Club has recently acquired an early 1800’s Garrett County log cabin which it plans to reassemble for further historical immersion at the site.
In addition to all of these activities, the Club also provides financial assistance to local residents for vision-related healthcare expenses, assists with screening elementary school students for potential eye problems and donates to local and global organization, which align with its mission.
This year, the Club will be holding a Gala event for the 50th anniversary of the Blind Skier Program on Tuesday, February 7th, 2023 at the Wisp Resort. The event will feature an inspiring presentation by Brian McKeever, a blind Canadian cross-country skier and biathlete. At age 19, McKeever was diagnosed with Stargardt disease (a macular degeneration or loss of central vision – fine detail and color), which had also afflicted his father. McKeever is Canada’s most decorated Winter Paralympian. McKeever and his brother were featured in a number of Toyota ads during the Olympics and has a career total of 13 gold medals and 17 medals in all.
In addition to Brian McKeever’s inspiring presentation, the event will offer an incredible selection of donated items for their silent auction, a delicious meal and plenty of time to network and socialize, cash bar, music, an awards program, and other special events to commemorate this momentous anniversary.
Funds raised at this event will ensure the continuance of the Blind Skier program for the next 50 years and beyond.