Steve Vick, director of local nonprofit Noble Paws, began mushing 20 years ago and immediately realized his sport could be beneficial to others.
“Literally my first year mushing, I had the idea of Noble Paws, a general idea of what I wanted to do, and it just kind of grew from there,” Vick said.
Noble Paws is a local, volunteer and donation based organization that works with community members with disabilities to teach them how to mush.
“I mushed and was in the back country a lot and thought this is a great experience,” Vick said. “I just thought that other people would feel that way, too, and that kids with disabilities or people with physical disabilities would be able to get so much out of not just being in the backcountry but the connection with the dogs and the team and all the things that being a part of that brings to them.”
Noble Paws began operation in 2013 and has been busy ever since.
“We work with people with emotional, intellectual and physical disabilities, which can include autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, kids with emotional barriers,” Vick noted. “We also work with at-risk youth, so maybe they’ve been incarcerated, maybe they’re going through rehab, maybe they need some community service hours, maybe they’re going through counseling, maybe they’re in foster care.”
The program also works with veteran’s struggling with re-entry or emotional and mental difficulties such as post traumatic stress disorder.
Every season is different, Vick noted.
“We don’t know who we’re going to be working with and what difficulties they might be working through,” Vick said. “But our focus is individual interaction and teaching.
The program does not include big groups, but rather one-on-one teaching sessions or small groups on race days.
“With the way our program’s structured we can’t really do big groups because it’s a very one-on-one experience,” Vick said. “A kid comes into our program at the beginning of mushing season in October and we get a commitment from them and their parents that they can make it once a week, every week, for six months for three hours every time they come.
We teach them everything there is to know about mushing. So when a kid comes in we teach them how to handle the dogs, harness the dogs, line the dogs out, they learn about the gates.”
The season begins in October with dog training and early stages of dog running on four-wheelers before the snow comes.
“By the time the snow comes and we get a sled, the kids are already pretty adept at working with the dogs and handling the dogs so when they get on the sled, the focus can be on staying upright and being on the sled,” Vick said. “This is when it comes in handy to have another volunteer. So when we take kids out on the first ride, I’ll have a team of four and the kid will have two or four dogs and then a handler behind them. So if something happens and the kid loses the sled, I catch the team and the handler can help them.”
Vick noted he worked with a group of five kids last season. In all six years of operations, Vick said the youngest kid he’s worked with was 8 and the oldest was 18.
“Once the kid is comfortable handling their own team, then we do races. We can do races over at the Mushers Hall, usually Junior Mushers races. Those are spring races, so they could be 6 miles, 12 miles, depending on how many dogs you have,” Vick said. “And that’s a really cool experience, sometimes the kids are nervous but it’s also really fun because it’s the first time they’re going to run the dogs without me involved. So a lot of times the kids are nervous, but they do it and they come back with all this new confidence.
In the past, Vick has utilitized a number of adaptive sleds for students with physical disabilities but noted there hasn’t been much of a need for the equipment recently.
The group also works with combat veterans.
“For kids it’s a full six months and it’s all about consistency for the kids, but with veterans there is more flexibility in working around an adult schedule with their work and their own families perhaps,” Vick said. “We’ve done weekend warrior programs where a veteran comes for two or three weekends in a row and by the end of that they can run their own race.”
Vick was working at Crossroads Counseling here in Fairbanks as a live-in aide for people with disabilities when he got the idea.
“That’s really when it took off, because when I had one of the kids with me, and I stopped by the dog year, you could often see that immediate connection with the dogs which was really fascinating,” Vick said.
“Most of the time it’s individual teaching, but when race days come, then we all meet at the mushing hall and then you get to see all the kids working together and creating that sense of teamwork.
“It’s different for every kid because every kid comes with different things they are working through, but they get to learn responsibility, empowerment, leadership,” Vick said.
After a full winter of learning and gaining abilities, Vick said each kid tends to come back each season for two or three years. The organization has grown so much that Vick has begun reaching out to other mushers who may be interested in working with a few of the kids.
“It’s almost turned into Big Brothers Big Sisters but with mushing and with kids with disabilities,” Vick said. “A few mushers I know have expressed interest, so now it’ll just be important to match the right musher with the right kid, sometimes mushers don’t have experience with one disability and it may not be a good match but they could be good with another kid.”
Given that the organization is a nonprofit, Vick noted Noble Paws is almost entirely community funded with some significant business donations, as well.
“If the kid wants to do it and the parent or guardian is OK with it, then they’re in and it doesn’t cost them a thing,” Vick said.
Each year at the beginning of the season, previous students are given first preference if they choose to return for another season, but after that Vick will open up the rest of the spots for new students.
Vick said he’s not sure how many kids he will be working with this upcoming season.
“So we’ll reach out to them sometime in September and see how many want to come back and then after we have that number we’ll post an update on our Facebook page and our website letting folks know how many openings we have,” he said.
The organization can be reached through their Facebook page, Noble Paws — Alaska, or at www.noblepaws.org or by calling Vick at 907-314-0721.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.