Locals ski and ride to raise money, awareness for nonprofits | VailDaily.com
Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily

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Locals ski and ride to raise money, awareness for nonprofits

If you go …

What: SKI for MS (formerly Vertical Express)

When: Saturday, Feb. 18.

Where: Vail Mountain.

Cost: $25 for all on-mountain activities (lift ticket is not included) and the Après Party. Raise $350 for VIP treatment, including a one-day lift ticket, all on-mountain activities, T-shirt and two drinks at the Après Party.

More information: Visit http://mscando.org/vail.

What: Vail Veterans Program

When: Sunday, March 5, to Friday, March 10.

Where: Vail Mountain.

Cost: Free for participants. To donate, visit http://www.vailveteransprogram.org/donate

More information: Visit http://www.vailveteransprogram.org.

What: Ride of the Penguins

When: Monday, March 6.

Where: Vail Mountain.

Cost: Free (lift tickets are not included).

More information: Visit http://www.facebook.com/rideofthepenguins.

What: Pink Vail

When: Saturday, March 25.

Where: Vail Mountain (based at Golden Peak).

Cost: $25 registration includes event credentials (lift tickets are not included).

More information: Visit http://www.pinkvail.com.

On any given day, Vail Mountain is packed with skiers and snowboarders cruising down groomers or exploring the Back Bowls, giddy with the feeling of snow beneath their boots, loving life. But some days are even more special; some days, people are skiing for something bigger than themselves.

You may have noticed them in years past. Wearing purple bibs, pink or penguin outfits, these people are cruising for a cause. Some are simply doing their thing, crushing it on a monoski, a quiet reminder of service. However, each of these skiers and snowboarders is tackling the mountain with the motivation to make a difference. And, through the following programs, you can, too.

Ski for MS

Saturday, Feb. 18

Perhaps one of the longest-running, mountain-based fundraising events, the Ski for MS series has raised more than $11 million throughout its 32-year history to provide free educational programs for those with multiple sclerosis and their families to help them thrive.

Formerly known as Vertical Express, the Ski for MS Vail event is one of nine stops at resorts around the country that will raise funds for Can Do Multiple Sclerosis, a national nonprofit organization that delivers health education programs for people with multiple sclerosis and their families.

Designed as a full-day event, participants pay a registration fee and solicit donations from friends and family to support the cause. Activities include an on-mountain scavenger hunt, amateur ski races and the Jimmie Heuga memorial ski down honoring the Can Do MS founder. Heuga, one of the first American men to win an Olympic medal in alpine skiing, started the organization in 1984. While his diagnosis ended his professional skiing career, he became a pioneer in the multiple sclerosis care management field.

Taking place on Presidents Day weekend, there is still plenty of time to get involved. Jennifer Clark, director of marketing and communications for Can Do Multiple Sclerosis, said it's not uncommon to have people donate and sign up on the day of the event. The team will have a tent at the base of Gondola One to provide information and register day-of participants.

In addition to a full day of skiing and events on-mountain, the apres party at 3 p.m. at The Sebastian Vail is another opportunity to support the event. The goal is to raise $50,000, which goes to program scholarships and free access to the organization's educational programs. Ranging from in-person, four-day programs that offer 360 degrees of care and education on how to live with multiple sclerosis to free online webinars, Can Do MS is focused on helping people become empowered to not only live with their diagnosis, but to live well.

"We're at this great place in our organization where we have a lot of momentum," Clark said. "We impacted 30,000 people last year. We want to just help every person we can with (multiple sclerosis). The only thing restricting us is funding. Events like this help us get the funding to get people the opportunity they wouldn't otherwise get."

Vail Veterans Program

Sunday, March 5, to Friday, March 10

Not every event that makes a difference on the mountain involves fundraising or distinctive costumes. The Vail Veterans Program's Winter Mountain Adventure takes place Sunday, March 5, to Friday, March 10 and provides five days of one-on-one skiing or snowboarding instruction for wounded veterans.

Created in 2004 as an adaptive winter ski program with seven wounded warriors, the Vail Veterans Program has grown to host more than 500 severely injured veterans and more than 1,000 family members and caregivers, promoting physical and emotional healing for wounded warriors and their families.

The Vail Veterans Program works closely with Vail Mountain Adaptive Ski School instructors for the Winter Mountain Adventure. Seeing the participants on the mountain helps build awareness for the program, said Cheryl Jensen, founder and executive director of the Vail Veterans Program, and also can inspire people to get involved.

"It's something our community takes great pride in," Jensen said. "Everyone feels it. It's one way to give back to servicemen who have given so much."

The program is funded by donations: Servicemen and women and their families participate in the program free of charge. But Jensen said that while dollars are always appreciated, giving high-fives and saying thanks are also welcome. After all, these veterans love the exact same thing you do.

"The most important thing that skiing provides is helping find that new sense of normal," Jensen said. "If you've been injured, finding that through skiing is amazing. It's like, I can do anything now."

Ride of the Penguins

Monday, March 6

Sometimes an event is organic, growing by word of mouth until it's an event that people plan vacations around. Sometimes, that event involves penguin costumes.

Ride of the Penguins, approaching its ninth year, takes place on the first Monday in March. What started as an excuse for locals to gather together, have a good time, wear a costume and "get a little weird on the mountain," said Jody Petit, one of the founding members, is now a gathering of up to almost 100 people.

At one point, the founders talked about using the event to give back to a nonprofit, but the penguins are a diverse group of people and it was hard to decide on just one beneficiary. So they decided Ride of the Penguins would be a "cause for all causes, just because," Petit said. "The idea of it was asking everyone to donate for a cause of their choice, to have something … that empowered them to ride for their own cause, for their own group."

Choosing a cause and donating is not a prerequisite for riding with the penguins. With no official ties, many different causes have benefited from these costumed citizens. However, this year Petit is considering raising money for an organization that would be of interest for people in mountain towns, such as Protect Our Winters or the National Park Foundation. At the moment, no concrete plans have been made, but the idea is out there.

Ride of the Penguins is inclusive; anyone who wants to join can, and the group is welcoming. If you have a penguin suit, then wear it. If you don't or don't feel like donning a costume, then you can join as a penguin handler: regular people who want to ski and snowboard along and help with the limited visibility experienced by those in the suits.

"What brings us all together is our love for playing out in the wilderness and playing in snow and taking advantage of it while we can," Petit said.

And if playing in the snow culminates in belly slides down Pepi's Face at the end of the day, then so be it. For more information, find the Ride of the Penguins page on Facebook.

Pink Vail

Saturday, March 25

Now in its sixth year, Pink Vail is the world's biggest ski day to conquer cancer. Though originally designed to raise funds specifically for breast cancer patients, the event now benefits patients at Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards.

"Year after year, Pink Vail exceeds our expectations," said Doris Kirchner, president and CEO of Vail Valley Medical Center, of which Shaw is a department. "Thanks to thousands of passionate participants and donors, Pink Vail has raised more than $2.4 million over the last five years. Those funds benefit all patients at our cancer center and help make the journey a little easier."

As the biggest — and only — ski event for cancer in the world, Pink Vail is a unique way to bring attention not only to people who are battling the disease, but also to Shaw and its programs. All of the donations from Pink Vail benefit patient care and the Spirit of Survival program at Shaw, which provides free services that are complementary to cancer care but aren't typically covered by health insurance.

To wit: In 2016, Spirit of Survival provided patients with 2,768 fitness sessions; 450 wellness and exercise classes; 583 counseling sessions; 525 massage, reiki and acupuncture sessions; and 423 nutrition consultations, as well as hundreds of group hikes, ski days, hut trips, cooking demos, art classes and educational lectures. Funds also supported 16 patients through the cancer center's new Slim for Survival program.

Of course, an event of this magnitude doesn't happen on its own. Almost 450 volunteers are needed for a wide variety of jobs, from assembling swag bags to running check-in at various spots on the mountain. While approximately 70 percent of the slots are already filled, there are still more than 100 opportunities to help out.

This year's event will be based at Golden Peak, with the Checkpoint Challenge taking place at various decks on the mountain with live music and food. Prizes will be awarded for top fundraisers, costume contest winners and Checkpoint Challenge participants. New this year, a kids' tent will be set up at the base and participants will be able to honor loved ones with a symbolic ski down Whipper Snapper (renamed Pink Vail Trail for the day) during the Celebration of Life.

To sign up to volunteer, donate or participate, go to pinkvail.com.

Whether you choose to don a costume, bib or Antarctic avian suit or simply donate to your favorite cause, there are plenty of opportunities to make a difference when hitting the snow. It's a great way to make a good day even better.