BOZEMAN – Karla Cartwright and her son, Weston, had no idea what to expect when they first attended Big Sky Kids Camp in Eagle Mount, designed for children with cancer and their families, in 1993.
For 10 days, Weston spent time with other outdoor campers, rafting the Yellowstone River, exploring Yellowstone National Park and living beyond his cancer diagnosis.
âMy son loved it and found great strength in it. And I did too, âCartwright told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. ââ¦ You didn’t remember you had cancer. You didn’t remember you were sick. You don’t remember going back and forth (for treatment).
Cartwright and his son returned to the ranch outside of Big Sky, MT each summer to attend camp until Weston’s death in 2000.
âYou grow up, you learn, you feel loved. You feel loved, âCartwright said of herself and her son at camp. ââ¦ It gives you that strength where you know you can go on. “
With Eagle Mount Camp, children and young adults can experience outdoor recreation in a setting that includes medical supervision and support. The camp is just one of many programs offered by Eagle Mount, focused on their goal of accessible and adaptable recreation for all.
âWhat Eagle Mount really does is make all of our backyard activities for everyone and anyone who wants to recreate themselves in these spaces,â said Kevin Sylvester, executive director of the association with goal non-profit.
Founded in 1982 by Robert and Greta Mathis, Eagle Mount will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2022. The association was launched with its ski program which offered lessons and trips to people with physical, developmental or cognitive differences.
It has since grown to include an array of recreational activities, camps and events including swimming, horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing, cycling and horticulture. Over the past year, its family outreach program has grown to include retreats for guardians and siblings.
Each year, about 1,000 participants and a similar number of volunteers participate in Eagle Mount programs, many of whom register for more than one of the activities, Sylvester said. There are approximately 25 full-time and part-time employees.
THE POWER OF VOLUNTEERS
Although camp participants are no longer allowed to return each year, Cartwright said that by the time her son entered the program, there was no limit. Weston wanted to participate every year.
Cartwright got involved in volunteering with the Big Sky Kids Camp in Eagle Mount about a decade after her son died. For Cartwright, she said it was a natural progression to be a family member participating in the volunteer camp from 2011 to 2019.
âI think people were pretty shocked to see me there because I was supposed to be in mourning, but I wanted to give back because they had given us so much,â she said.
Since her first camp experience, Cartwright said she remains in awe of the commitment and dedication of all the volunteers.
âI think Eagle Mount wouldn’t survive all of these years without the Bozeman and Big Sky communities,â Cartwright said. “They go above and beyond.”
Sylvester said it was “humiliating” to think of the “tens of thousands” of volunteers who have given their time to Eagle Mount, including those who have consistently volunteered for the past four decades.
âI think volunteers are the backbone of Eagle Mount,â Sylvester said.
While building a community of volunteers may not be the mission of the nonprofit, it has become a “beautiful side mission,” said Pearl Nixon, Chief Financial Officer of Eagle Mount.
âSince the early 1980s there were very few very dedicated staff and volunteers who were willing to learn a lot and teach other volunteers to fill this community,â Nixon said.
While they don’t have exact numbers from the early days of the nonprofit, Nixon has recounted a piece of the Mount Eagle lore.
âThat first winter at the Bridger Bowl they thought they might have 10 people who wanted to come ski with Eagle Mount and they ended up having 80 signed up,â she said.
LOOKING FOR SNOW
The skiing program, both at Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Big Sky Resort, might be one of the most visible aspects of Eagle Mount.
âEverything we do at Eagle Mount is a different tool for the same end – connectivity, empowerment and joy,â said Patrick Quinn, Bridger Bowl Ski Program Director at Eagle Mount.
Quinn, who has been on the Eagle Mount staff for three years, was a volunteer before that. As a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort, Quinn said he would regularly see Mount Eagle participants and volunteers hitting the slopes for their lessons.
âThey were having so much fun,â Quinn said. âIt was very magnetic. It draws you in when you see that you can be a part of that fun.
In his early days as a volunteer, Quinn remembers one lesson in particular when working with a student who communicated non-verbally. Quinn, another instructor, and the student were on a chairlift after the student had a successful ski lesson.
âHe looks at me and laughs like I said the funniest joke,â Quinn said.
Soon Quinn and the other instructor couldn’t help but laugh too.
âIt became this triangle of laughing at each other. It was just a real moment of happy connection, âQuinn said. “It’s those connections to people that really make us feel like it’s a refreshing part of the world to work in.”
Quinn estimates that the ski program has about 400 volunteers for this season.
âIt’s really about how to create a world in which these interactions and learning can be multidirectional,â Quinn said.
The ski program includes the Bridger Bowl, destination lessons and vacation experiences at Big Sky Resort, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Crosscut Mountain Sports.
The Bridger Bowl ski program is more local, Quinn said, with participation from area school districts. He estimates that around 300 students participate in the Bridger Ski Program, with each student receiving eight lessons per season. Volunteers engage in the eight-week, two-day training program before the start.
Quinn said many volunteers and participants remain as couples over the years and âlifelong friendshipsâ develop.
âIt’s a beautiful thing to watch, especially these new relationships,â Quinn said.
It is volunteers and community partners like Bridger Bowl, Big Sky Resort and Crosscut who grow the programs.
âEagle Mount wouldn’t be an organization without this commitment. There is no way to recreate 400 volunteers in a staffing situation, âQuinn said. â… There is tremendous dedication, commitment and passion on the part of our volunteers. “
THE NEXT 40 YEARS
To mark its 40th anniversary, Eagle Mount plans to host several events throughout 2022, including a community pool party in February and a horse show in May.
Sylvester said Eagle Mount has an eye on its next 40 years.
“How can we simultaneously honor these 40 years and also look at what the future holds in terms of keeping up with a growing community and the demands and pressures on an organization,” Sylvester said.
Eagle Mount will continue to focus on what he’s known and has always done well for: building relationships, Sylvester said.
âThe relationships that are built between volunteers and participants, the relationships that are built within the community around disability awareness,â Sylvester said. â… It’s about educating the community about what the communities we work with every day and the obstacles they may face. “
Sylvester, who first logged on to Eagle Mount as a ski volunteer at Billings more than a decade ago, said the nonprofit was in the process of doing a needs assessment. participants and families.
One area that is generating a lot of interest, he said, continues to develop family awareness programs.
For Cartwright, nearly 30 years after her family’s first Big Sky Kids camp, she still reflects on the profound impact the relationships and connections the foster families at Eagle Mount have had on her son’s life and hers.
âIt’s a big family, that’s what it is,â Cartwright said. âBob and Greta (Mathis) had no idea of ââthe power they had behind their idea and the lives of the people they would touch. If you could write everyone’s name it would be a long list of people.