Essex woman works with disabled, instilling pride and achievement

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By Gail Callahan
For The Essex Reporter

Mary Cassella skis in Austria. PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED

Mary Cassella skis in Austria.
PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED

Mary Cassella gets up everyday, ready to make a difference. The petite, 69-year-old Essex Town resident is a retired Essex High School para-educator, sports enthusiast and community volunteer. For nearly a decade, she has spent part of her weekends at Bolton Valley Ski Area, volunteering with the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports program. Known as the state’s largest, year-round disabled sports, non-profit organization, the program encompasses a diverse program of winter and summer sports. Proud of its diverse program opportunities and unique, specialized equipment, Vermont Adaptive promotes independence and furthers equality through access and instruction to sports and recreational opportunities. Athletic programs include: alpine skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, cycling, hiking, rock climbing, tennis and horseback riding. The client base comes from across the globe, who have an array of abilities, that include physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.

Turning to her work as a Vermont Adaptive volunteer, Cassella said the downhill skiing lessons run two and a half hours and a sliding fee scale is used for participants. Equipment is included in the cost of the session. She explained her role is to ski behind students, ensuring no one gets hit by other skiers and to offer help if someone needs assistance.

“I just love it. It’s so amazing to see these kids… it’s a wonderful program,” said Cassella. “Some of the children come to the lesson and have never participated in anything like this before. The parents are so thrilled to see the children ski. I’ve seen parents cry when the kids are skiing. They thought that the children couldn’t play, and now they’re skiing.”

As a special education para-educator at EHS, Cassella is accustomed to working with children with special needs. She underscored that her professional training enables her to work well with children enrolled in the Vermont Adaptive Ski program.

“I feel God has placed these special people in my life for this and for a reason. I also think my (professional) work helps me to understand the children,” she said.

Bruce Campbell, whose 17-year-old son is a student on Cassella’s team, praised Casella and the other program personnel for their dedication and hard work. He also noted how they gained his son’s confidence after they donned protective helmets, goggles and strapped on skis.

“It’s just a great program,” Cambell said. “At the start of the season, my son dreaded going to ski lessons, now he asks for it.”

Cassella, a Vermont native, settled in Essex in 1990. She has a grown son, who lives in Virginia, and two grandchildren. An avid nature lover, Cassella loves to jog and hop on her bike or take a kayak out on the water during warm weather months.

Cassella is also a tireless fundraiser for the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports Program, raising well over $1,000 on her own. She is currently collecting for the organization.

To learn more, visit www.vermontadaptive.org.