Group celebrates 40 years of outdoors empowerment, skiing
Eagle Mount participant Raechel Raether smiles as she rides a carpet lift during a ski lesson at Big Sky Resort on Dec. 29, 2021, in Big Sky, Mont. The group that provides outdoor recreation experiences is in its 40th year. (Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)
| January 8, 2022 3:57 PM
BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Karla Cartwright and her son, Weston, didn't know what to expect the first time they attended Eagle Mount's Big Sky Kids Camp, designed for children diagnosed with cancer and their families, in 1993.
For 10 days, Weston spent time with other campers in the outdoors, rafting the Yellowstone River, exploring Yellowstone National Park and living beyond his cancer diagnosis.
"My son absolutely loved it and found a great strength from it. And I did too," Cartwright told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. "… You didn't remember you had cancer. You didn't remember you were sick. You didn't remember traveling back and forth (for treatment)."
Cartwright and her son returned each summer to the ranch outside Big Sky, Montana to attend the camp up until Weston's death in 2000.
"You grow, you learn, you feel cared about. You feel loved," Cartwright said of her and her son's time at the camp. "… It gives you this strength where you know you can keep going."
With Eagle Mount's camp, children and young adults are able to experience outdoor recreation in a setting that includes medical supervision and support. The camp is just one of many programs Eagle Mount offers focused on its goal of accessible and adaptable recreation for all.
"What Eagle Mount really does is make all of our backyard activities happen for everyone and anyone that wants to recreate in those spaces," said Kevin Sylvester, executive director of the nonprofit.
Founded in 1982 by Robert and Greta Mathis, Eagle Mount will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2022. The nonprofit was launched with its ski program that provided lessons and trips for people with physical, developmental or cognitive differences.
It has since grown to include a spectrum of recreation activities, camps and events, including, swimming, horsemanship, rafting, climbing, cycling and horticulture. In the last year, its family outreach program has grown to include retreats for guardians and siblings.
Each year, roughly 1,000 participants and a similar number of volunteers participate in Eagle Mount programs, with many signing up for more than one of the activities, Sylvester said. There are roughly 25 full- and part-time employees.
THE POWER OF VOLUNTEERS
While camp participants are no longer allowed back each year, Cartwright said at the time her son was attending the program, there wasn't a limit. Weston wanted to participate each year.
Cartwright became involved in volunteering with Eagle Mount's Big Sky Kids camp about a decade after her son's death. For Cartwright, she said it was a natural progression from being a family member participating in the camp to volunteering from 2011 to 2019.
"I think people were quite shocked to see me there because I was supposed to be grieving but I wanted to give back because they had given so much to us," she said.
Since her first camp experience, Cartwright said she remains impressed by the commitment and dedication of all the volunteers.
"I feel Eagle Mount would not be surviving all these years if it were not for the Bozeman and Big Sky communities," Cartwright said. "They go above and beyond."
Sylvester said it was "humbling" to think of the "tens of thousands" volunteers who have given their time to Eagle Mount, including those who have consistently volunteered for the past four decades.
"I think volunteers are the backbone of Eagle Mount," Sylvester said.
While building a community of volunteers might not be the mission of the nonprofit, it became a "beautiful secondary mission," said Pearl Nixon, director of finance for Eagle Mount.
"From the early 80s, there were very few employees and very dedicated volunteers who were willing to learn a lot and teach other volunteers to fill that community," Nixon said.
While they don't have exact numbers from the early days of the nonprofit, Nixon recounted a piece of Eagle Mount lore.
"That first winter at Bridger Bowl they thought they might have 10 people who wanted to come and ski with Eagle Mount and they ended up having 80 sign up," she said.
The ski program, both at Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Big Sky Resort, might be one of the more visible aspects of Eagle Mount.
"Everything we do at Eagle Mount is a different tool for the same outcome — connectivity, empowerment and joy," said Patrick Quinn, director of Eagle Mount's Bridger Bowl ski program.
Quinn, who has been an Eagle Mount staff member for three years, was a volunteer before that. As a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort, Quinn said he would regularly see the Eagle Mount participants and volunteers hitting the slopes for their lessons.
"They were having so much fun," Quinn said. "It was very magnetic. It draws you in when you see you can be a part of that fun."
During his early days as a volunteer, Quinn recalls one lesson in particular when he was working with a student who communicated nonverbally. Quinn, another instructor and the student were on a chair lift after the student had a successful ski lesson.
"He looks at me and just starts laughing like I said the funniest joke," Quinn said.
Soon Quinn and the other instructor couldn't help but laugh too.
"It became this triangle of us laughing with each other. It was just a genuine moment of joyous connection," Quinn said. "It's those connections with people that really make us feel like it's a refreshing part of the world to work in."
Quinn estimates the ski program has about 400 volunteers for this season.
"It's really about how do we create a world in which those interactions and that learning can be multidirectional," Quinn said.
The ski program consists of Bridger Bowl, destination lessons and vacation experiences at Big Sky Resort and cross country skiing and snowshoeing at Crosscut Mountain Sports.
The Bridger Bowl ski program is more locally based, Quinn said, with school districts in the area participating. He estimates there are around 300 students who participate in the Bridger ski program, with each student getting eight lessons a season. The volunteers commit to the eight-week program, and two days of training prior to the start.
Quinn said many of the volunteers and participants remain paired up throughout the years with "life-long friendships" developing.
"It's a beautiful thing to watch, especially those newer relationships," Quinn said.
It's the volunteers and community partners like Bridger Bowl, Big Sky Resort and Crosscut that keep the programs growing.
"Eagle Mount wouldn't be an organization without that commitment. There's no way to recreate 400 volunteers to a staffing situation," Quinn said. "… There's huge dedication and commitment and passion from our volunteers."
THE NEXT 40 YEARS
To mark its 40th anniversary, Eagle Mount plans to hold multiple events throughout 2022, including a community pool party in February and a horse show in May.
Sylvester said Eagle Mount has an eye to its next 40 years.
"How do we simultaneously honor those 40 years and also look to what the future holds in terms of keeping up with a growing community and the demands and pressure that places on an organization," Sylvester said.
Eagle Mount will continue to focus on what it is known for and has always done well: building relationships, Sylvester said.
"The relationships that are built between volunteers and participants, the relationships that are built within the community around disability awareness," Sylvester said. "… It's educating the community on what the communities we work with are experiencing every day and barriers they may face."
Sylvester, who first connected with Eagle Mount as a ski volunteer in Billings over a decade ago, said the nonprofit is in the process of analyzing a participant and family needs assessment.
One area it's seen a lot of interest in, he said, is continuing to grow family outreach programs.
For Cartwright, almost 30 years out from her family's first Big Sky Kids camp, she still reflects on the profound impact the relationships and connections Eagle Mount fosters had on her son's life and her own.
"It's a huge family, is what it is," Cartwright said. "Bob and Greta (Mathis) had no idea the power they had behind their idea and the people's lives they would touch. If you could write down everyone's name, it would be a long list of people."