The Most Remarkable Vacation Money Can’t Buy: NSCD Volunteer Vacation by Annie Coburn

When summer temperatures are hitting record highs, you might be looking for a cool place to hide out that will not put a strain on tight budgets or involve the old vacation haunts which seem so ho-hum. With the winter snows falling and you are wanting somewhere beautiful to have a great get away, how about a spectacular vacation idea that’s not only cool, but satisfies the soul as well? Volunteer vacations, where you not only enjoy new surroundings, but also give your time and effort helping others is a win for everyone.

The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colorado, is a world leader in helping disabled young people and adults participate in all types of outdoor activities, year round. It’s not too early to plan a summer get-away and not too late to think about a winter escape. In fact, it’s the right time to think about playing in the snow.

What is NSCD? In the late 1960’s, Hal O’Leary was a ski instructor at Winter Park when the Children’s Hospital of Denver called George Engel, owner of Winter Park, with a revolutionary idea: let’s teach disabled children to ski. When Engel asked his ski instructors for volunteers, the only hand that went up was Hal O’Leary’s. He didn’t have much time for preparation since the first group was scheduled to arrive at Winter Park in six days.
First he kluged together some ski outriggers (two short skis fixed on ski poles). Next, he tied up one of his own legs behind him and began to teach himself to ski on three tracks (one leg and two outriggers). A few days later, twenty-three amputees arrived for Hal’s first class. This was the beginning of forty years of achievement for Hal and the NSCD program. Each year NSCD instructs thousands of physically, cognitively and emotionally disabled people with the help of over 800 volunteers.

Before long, the Winter Program that Hal began expanded to include a Summer Program. People from around the world flock to the cool temperatures and beauty of Colorado’s Fraser Valley to be a part of the NSCD program. The summer program includes rafting, rock climbing, canoeing, therapeutic horseback riding and camping. Ashley Sifers, NSCD Volunteer Coordinator, puts the need for summer volunteers into perspective: “On any given day, we can have forty people on the river, thirty people horseback riding. We can have a group hiking up Jim Creek. We can even have some overnight camping going on plus some canoeing in Denver. All of this can happen in one day. We are growing at an exponential rate.”

NSCD needs volunteers. Can you participate?
Excuse #1: I have a family. What would we do with the kids while we’re working with the program? Families are welcome…all family members. In fact, NSCD prefers to have every member of the family volunteer. Imagine what a learning experience this would be for the entire family working together to help others. Kids have a way of connecting with other kids. That would certainly change the conversation at the dinner table and put life in perspective for both young and adult. “This program is a lesson in the power of the human spirit,” says Sally Speas, veteran NSCD instructor, “To see this strength first hand makes all of us stronger.”

Excuse #2: I’m not an outdoors kind of person. I don’t bike and never even touched a horse. NSCD wouldn’t want someone like me. Even if the outdoors isn’t your playground, this doesn’t mean a volunteer vacation won’t work for you. You don’t have to know how to raft, rock climb or canoe in order to help with the logistics of getting equipment or food or people where they need to be. People are needed to tie shoes or walk along side a horse. “No experience necessary”, explains Ashley. “As long as you have the desire to be a part of this meaningful and incredible experience, we’ll find a way to make it work for you.”

Excuse #3: I really want to help, but this is my only chance to relax and renew myself. To be a volunteer only requires half a day each day for as brief a stay as one week. But, I promise, once you work with these young people and adults, you won’t want to leave. “It fills you up. It makes you smile. It makes you happy. It makes you proud”, explains Karen Conger, NSCD Instructor. “You learn from these students. They don’t learn from you. It’s just amazing.” How could you find a better way to renew your spirit?
As our fitful excuses vaporize into the thin air of those magnificent Rocky Mountains, I’ll leave you with some contact information to begin making your summer or winter vacation plans. For special programs or questions, call NSCD at 303-293-5711. To sign up complete the application on the NSCD website under the volunteers tab: For information about hotels and summer events, check out Winter Park’s website at
If you have even a flicker of hesitation, this message from Mike Machuga, NSCD instructor extraordinaire, should cinch those vacation plans: “In this program you get to do something that most people never get to do in their whole life. You get to make a difference in someone else’s life. At the end of the day, you can hang your hat on it.”
See you in snowy Colorado!