By Deb Everts
After nearly 20 years as director of the Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program, Mary Ellen Racich will retire in May and pass the torch to assistant director Bill Bredenberg.
Racich said she has led the Lounsbury program for so many years because it has been extremely rewarding to see disabled people able to do what others do recreationally. She said it makes their lives more fulfilling and when she sees that, it makes her own life more fulfilling.
She said the program’s volunteer instructors are the other reason she has been with the program so long. She said it’s been wonderful to surround herself with so many giving and caring people who will do things for others and not expect anything in return.
“They do it because it comes from their heart, and many have been in the program almost as long as I have,” she said.
Racich said Holiday Valley has been tremendously supportive and it’s a very special place to work. She said the skiers out on the slopes have been wonderful as well. In all her years of instructing and being out on the slopes with disabled people, she has never heard a negative word from anyone who was out there skiing — even when they had to wait in the lift lines for them to get on the chairlift.
“It makes your heart feel good to know there are not only great instructors out there, but also great skiers out there who are very caring and patient,” she said.
Racich said her husband, Ed, has been an instructor with the program for about 15 years but he is also retiring from the Lounsbury program. She said it’s time for them to move on to spend more time skiing with their grandchildren, their son and his wife.
Bredenberg, who lives in Hamburg, said under Racich’s leadership, the program has grown to over 40 volunteer instructors who are specially trained in adaptive ski teaching methods. Over half are certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA).
“I have worked with Mary Ellen in the Lounsbury program for over 15 years and I hope to continue working with Holiday Valley in bringing the best experience to people with disabilities,” he said. “Management at Holiday Valley has been great in helping to bring excellent training to our staff and we are looking to expand the opportunities that we can offer to our population.”
Instructor Richelle Dube said the instructors are all sad to see her retire, but happy for her to venture out and take the next step in her life. She said throughout the years, Racich has provided encouragement and guidance to all the volunteers from pursuing their Adaptive Certification through PSIA to understanding the many disabilities. As a special education teacher for many years, her insight and knowledge has been invaluable to them all.
“Mary Ellen has been a driving force in the success of the Lounsbury program. She has dedicated many years to the program, first as an instructor and then stepping in to take over as director for 17 years,” she said. “During that time, the program has grown in many ways, including an increase in the number of students and groups it accommodates each year to the number of volunteer instructors that are now on staff.”
Dube said, in all those years, Racich has never let her dedication waiver from the true mission of the program — helping those with disabilities experience the exhilaration of skiing while having fun.
“The next director will have some pretty big shoes to fill, but I have no doubt that Bill Bredenberg will do so in his own style,” she said. “Mary Ellen will be missed by many — our students and the parents, veterans and so many other people behind the scenes, but it is time for her to spend more time with her family and get out there and ski.”
Racich started out as a volunteer instructor nearly 30 years ago and has been the program’s director for the past 17 years. She lives in the Cleveland, Ohio area eight months out of the year and in Ellicottville the other four, during the winter months.
When she began volunteering with the Lounsbury program, she was a school teacher of special needs students and worked with kindergarten through third grade students for 33 years. Then she worked with 16- to 22-year-olds for nine years before retiring in 2013.
Bredenberg said Racich’s experience as a special education teacher helped make her especially qualified to lead the program.
Racich said the volunteer instructors work with people of all disabilities and ages, ranging from five and up. The program serves between 200 and 250 clients each season that come from all over including Ohio, Canada, Pennsylvania, New York and Tennessee.
LASP is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization funded by private donations, service organizations and their annual major fundraiser, the Penguin Paddle, hosted by Holiday Valley each February.
The Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program is based at the Sugar Plum Lodge, next to the Tannenbaum Lodge, at Holiday Valley. To find out more, call 699-3504, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit online at lounsburyadaptive.org and holidayvalley.com.