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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 22, 2007

Disabled kids rule the hill at the Double H Ranch

By Rachel Dutil

Eleven-year-old Zachary Johnston says that skiing, for some "normal kids takes years to learn."

"It took me one day," he said. "I was just a natural at it."

The fifth-grader at Altamont Elementary School is taking ski lessons at the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne for his second year this winter. The ranch offers support to children and their families dealing with chronic illnesses.

"I’m at the top of the mountain" the king of the hill," he said of his status within the school, being in the highest grade.

Zack said the ranch is "awesome." His brothers, Alex, 9, and Ian, 7, agree, "It totally beats Jeepers and Chuck E Cheese’s," said Alex. They both learned to ski at the ranch, too.

Alex snowboards, and Zack and Ian ski.

"I prefer skiing; it’s much easier," Zack told The Enterprise.

He said that speed is his favorite part of skiing. "It feels great to be on skis."

The three Johnston children, along with their parents, Lee Ann and Kerry, went to the ranch for a family weekend program during the summer. The kids got to ride on horses, and do high ropes, which "was totally awesome," they all agreed.

Mrs. Johnston said the ranch and the programs it offers is "a great opportunity for our family to do something together."

For Zack, the ability "to share the experience with his brothers has been really amazing," she said, preferring not to name his disability. "It’s a great way for Zack to feel successful."

Zack took a skiing trip to Gore Mountain with his Double H Ranch ski instructor, Mike, he told The Enterprise. "Oh my God, it was so windy," he recalled about the trip to the much larger mountain.

He said he noticed while riding he chairlift that he passed the 3,000-feet elevation marker, and he was astounded that he was up so high.

"I could feel the difference between the man-made snow and the real snow," he said. "Natural snow is fluffier, and easier to slide on; it’s softer."

"I feel so free when I ski, " Zack added.

Alex Benninger, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Farnsworth Middle School also learned to ski at the Double H Ranch.

Alex has cerebral palsy. He has participated in both the summer and winter programs at the ranch for three years now, he told The Enterprise.

"I’ve done things there that I never would have believed I could do," Alex said. "The confidence boost I’ve gotten has been incredible."

The ranch staff helps these kids feel that they "can actually achieve something," said Alex’s mom, Tami Benninger. "It gives them a huge spirit uplifting."

The ranch is "a really beautiful place," Alex told The Enterprise.

He said he has written songs about the ranch, and "everybody has heard my stuff."

Alex skis on two skis, and uses two outriggers – poles with attached skis. He skied in last year’s winter Empire State Games in the four-tracker division, earning a silver medal, he said.

Alex has an identical twin brother, Jake, and a 10-year-old sister, Renee, who, along with his parents, Tami and Trent Benninger, have cheered him on as he zooms down the slopes.

"He loves it, he absolutely loves it," Mrs. Benninger said of the pleasure Alex gets from the ranch.

Everyone at the ranch, Alex said, "greets you with a smile, even if they are having a bad day."

"Every instructor has a big open heart," Mrs. Benninger said. "They are so wonderful."


The winter program is staffed by 115 volunteer ski-instructors and ski patrol. Ronald Von Ronne, of New Scotland, is the ski-school director. He oversees the ski instructors, curriculum, and training, he said. His wife, Judy, does administrative work.

The ranch’s team includes some of "the most extraordinary people in the world," Doug Jacoby, a parent of a skiing student, told The Enterprise.

Von Ronne has been working with the winter program at the ranch for about five years, he said. "The first day I was there, I knew it was something special."

Von Ronne told The Enterprise that his experience working with the children at the ranch "has made me a whole person."

Von Ronne said that he and his wife were lucky to have four "wonderful, healthy" children. Working with the kids at the ranch has been "an amazing opportunity to learn how some families have to deal with special children all their lives," he said.
The ranch is a great opportunity for the kids to "understand they are not alone," Von Ronne said. The kids all face similar struggles.

"They’re just kids, and they want to have fun," he said. "They can do as much as we convince them that they can do."

Each instructor must participate in a minimum of four days of training per year, Von Ronne told The Enterprise. The training sessions are done both on-site at the ranch and at Gore Mountain, he said.

One aspect of the training is "disabled ski teaching," he said. The instructors learn how to use the various equipment with which the ranch outfits the students, he explained.

The children are each teamed with two instructors to guide them down the mountain, and are provided with "all the equipment they could need," instructor Rex Moon told The Enterprise.

Most weekends are set up on a per-day basis. Usually there are 15 to 20 students scheduled per day, Moon explained.

But the ranch also has a few sleepover weekends, where 10 students are scheduled to attend, and the instructors teach not only the students, but their families as well, he said.

On any given weekend day, the lodge at the ranch is usually packed with close to 100 people, Von Ronne said.

"The kids are darn good," Von Ronne said. The program focuses on improving the kids’ self-respect, he said.

"That is an accomplishment that is very much needed," he said.

Von Ronne said that the main goal of the instructors is to "make sure that everyone has a good time."

"It’s amazing how upbeat these kids are," he said. "I love my job."

"I’ve got such a deep connection to the place," Alex Benninger told The Enteprise. "If I had a chance, I’d love to meet Paul Newman."

If Alex were able to meet Newman, who visits Double H every year, he would tell him, "You’ve built up one of my favorite places in the world."

Wood brought to life his favorite toast "To health and happiness"

By Rachel Dutil

Health and happiness are the two main objectives of the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, where the atmosphere is brimming with excitement, and the faces of students and staff members alike are adorned with bright smiles.

The ranch is part of the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, which was started by actor Paul Newman in 1988. His first camp was the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut. Double H Ranch was the second camp; it opened in 1992.

The Hole in the Wall Camps have reached out to nearly 100,000 children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses throughout the United States and 31 countries. The children and their families attend the camps for free.

The Association of Hole in the Wall Camps is supported fully through charitable contributions, and from a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Newman’s Own products.

"I wanted to acknowledge luck. The beneficence of it in many lives and the brutality of it in the lives of others, especially children, who might not have a lifetime to make up for it," says Newman on his Hole in the Wall Camps website.

The Double H Ranch is the only Hole in the Wall Camp that is open year-round, offering an adaptive winter sports program. The children learn how to ski and snowboard, and feel like normal kids, said volunteer ski instructor Rex Moon.

Double H history

In 1978, Charley Wood, a local businessman and philanthropist, formed the Charles R. Wood Foundation, which annually donates money to help critically ill children.

In 1991, the Wood Foundation purchased the 320-acre Hidden Valley Ranch that would become the Double H Ranch.

In 1990, Wood read an article about Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut. Wood contacted Newman, and proposed a second camp in the Adirondacks. Newman turned him down.

Wood was persistent, and, after writing Newman a second letter, Newman agreed, and the Double H Ranch was formed in 1992.

The Double H Ranch began as a summer camp for children with cancer, serious blood disorders, and neuromuscular impairments, and has since evolved into a year-round affair. The adaptive winter sports program is now in its 10th season.

In 2006, the adaptive winter sports program had five students from Connecticut, three from Massachusetts, six from New Jersey, and 100 from New York, 12 of whom were from Albany County.

A fully equipped medical center operates 24 hours a day to ensure the safety and health of the campers.

The summer program serves about 1,000 campers, and the winter program serves around 125 students. Each student in the winter sports program gets three lessons per season.

"To health and happiness," was Wood’s favorite toast, and where the "double h" in the ranch’s name comes from.

"Just think, in your lifetime if you can bring happiness to one child who isn’t as fortunate as you are – that’s worth a million dollars. Those children have so much heart and so much goodness it puts us to shame," Wood said in 1993.

Wood died in 2004, at the age of 90. He has provided happiness to many children at the Double H Ranch, where his desire for health and happiness lives on.

Children who are interested can learn more and apply for Hole in the Wall programs through the ranch’s website, doublehranch.org. Individuals interested in volunteering as ski instructors or camp counselors can also learn more at the website.

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