As Dylan Heine zigged and zagged his way to the bottom of the bunny slope, he broke out in a wide grin warm enough to melt the snow beneath his boots.
Despite cerebral palsy, the 5-year-old from Hamburg was standing erect and manipulating assist bars attached to a four-track "slow slider" apparatus. While Dylan was trying out the new equipment with the help of two instructors, his father said it was only a matter of time before he ventured out alone.
"He's in his second year, and he does everything," Bruce Heine said.
"I like doing the wide turns," Dylan said.
The slider was provided by the Phoenix Adaptive Ski Program at HoliMont in Ellicottville, where 11 children and their families were skiing Saturday. The program allows participants with disabilities to ski and socialize, and it gives families the chance to have fun together in what once would have been unimaginable.
Several parents said the program was so unique and important that they eagerly drove hours to be there.
"My son is severely autistic, and I actually can't ski with him anymore because it scares me too much; he's way better than I am," Francine Landry of Oakville, Ont., said of 15-year-old Scott Smith.
"We can actually go out as a family, and that's such a huge thing. It makes a big difference. We're very grateful."
Ned Scarby drove with his family from Cleveland for Will, his 8-year-old son, who suffers from global developmental delay, or delays in all areas of development.
"He's made a lot of progress in skiing, and we feel that progress helps him break through in other areas. Our hope is it enhances his decision-making," Scarby said.
"He earned a medal in his first race last year, and he wore it for a week. He also, during the season, will insist on sleeping with his skis sometimes, so that shows how purposeful and into it he is."
Jordan McColeman of Brantford, Ont., who is mentally challenged, was the first child in the Phoenix program. Now 20, McColeman took to skiing after being unable to participate in other sports.
"[The program has] given Jordan some confidence and some motor skills, and it gets him out doing something that's very social," said Philip McColeman, his father. "That integration has been incredibly good for him and our family.
Chuck Richardson, a local architect and HoliMont ski instructor, began the program in 1996, at the request of the lodge. Richardson, who is also the local Santa Claus at Christmastime, said the idea was to give all people the opportunity to ski, as well as snowboard and Alpine ski, regardless of the disability.
While some of the skiers favored the bunny slope Saturday, others -- donning the program's new orange and black jackets with a spider logo -- were challenging nearby Exhibition Hill.
While taking a break inside the Phoenix Activity Center, Peter Rivoli of Spencerport talked about how much the program benefited his son, 7-year-old Peter Jr., who has epilepsy and learning disabilities.
Rivoli said his son was unable to learn how to ski after a few years of private lessons, but that began to change almost immediately after participating in the HoliMont program. Thanks to patient and loving instruction, Rivoli said, his son's anger and frustration have given way to feelings of achievement -- especially since it allows him to be able to ski, just like his older brother.
"It makes me feel proud. To see him come down the hill by himself is outstanding," Rivoli said. "We dedicate ourselves to the program, and we'll do whatever it takes to keep it going for other kids. It's been that important to us."