As a volunteer, Maryann Zeira helps people with disabilities make fear disappear.
Imagine you’re an elite American athlete competing in high-profile events around the world. Overseas in a foreign culture, you’re a stranger in a strange land. You’re barely a teenager and you’ve already had more life experiences than many people will have in their lifetimes.
Now imagine you’re an autistic teenager, and it’s your first time on skis. You’re out of your element, away from your comfort zone and surrounded by strangers. A strong wind or threatening storm – not uncommon on a mountain – might cause anxiety, but still you relish the opportunity to face the unknown.
When it comes to new experiences – whether you’re an Olympic athlete or an autistic teenager – it’s all relative.
Maryann Zeira, a Deloitte Consulting senior manager who works out of the Los Angeles office, can appreciate the unfamiliar. As a teenager, she was one of the best luge athletes in the United States; a junior world champion in 1995 and ’96, she was an alternate on the U.S. luge team in the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Competing in luge allowed Zeira to experience new things.
Her competitive athletic career ended in 1998, but the feeling of trying the unknown never faded. Since 2006, Zeira has helped people with disabilities experience new activities and new feelings as a volunteer for Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra (DSES), a not-for-profit organization that teaches sports and outdoor activities to people with cognitive and physical disabilities on Mammoth Mountain in Northern California. The organization offers skiing and snowboarding in the winter and everything from fishing to horseback riding in the summer. Zeira focuses on helping students ski, something she’s done since she was three years old. “I really enjoy getting the chance to help these students experience new things,” she says. “It’s exciting to see their reactions. I’ve been fortunate enough to compete in sports and experience new things in new places, so it’s gratifying to help others do that.”
Mammoth Mountain, a popular ski area about 300 miles north of Los Angeles, was almost a second home for Zeira when she was growing up in Southern California. Along with her brother, she took skiing lessons, following in the steps of her parents, who were also avid skiers. One of her ski instructors was Kathy Copeland, who helped launch the organization that became DSES.
Training and competing in luge took Zeira away from Mammoth, but when her luge career ended, she returned and reconnected with Copeland, learned about DSES and decided to take volunteer training. “I have friends who have children with autism or other cognitive disabilities, so the program appealed to me on many levels,” Zeira says.
Without volunteers like Zeira, DSES would not be able to help disabled people at the level it currently does. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of this program, and Maryann is one of our best,” Copeland says. “She has a knack for adapting her volunteer efforts to any person and any disability. That’s so important for what we do.”
All DSES volunteers have to learn to work with students with a variety of disabilities. For example, some students need to be securely strapped in when riding a ski lift to prevent a fall if they were to suffer a seizure. Volunteers need to know what to do to keep their charges calm should a storm or even strong winds roll in. “Wind can have a major impact on students with sensory integration disorder,” says Zeira, who typically works with students who have cognitive disabilities; her husband, Ohad Zeira, also a volunteer, works more with students who have physical disabilities. “You learn what to do with different disorders.”
Another part of their task is serving as “blockers” to keep the DSES students sheltered from the other skiers. “The mountain can get crowded, so one of our primary jobs is to make sure students stay safe,” says Zeira, who makes the five-hour drive to volunteer more than 15 times a year. “We do this by blocking the angles where other skiers could hit our students. We also use tethers and other devices to help control the speed and turns of our students, and these devices are also great tools to help students learn to ski. We want the experience to be one in which the student feels safe and has fun.”
In a program for all ages and disabilities, volunteers face many challenges. “The goals that you’re trying to reach vary so much from one student to the next,” Zeira says. “On some days, the most I can get a student to do is put on a ski helmet or take a gondola ride. On other days, the same student might be learning to wedge or making turns. Each day is different, and you have to learn to adapt to what that student can handle on any particular day. Serving as a volunteer gives me a deep understanding of the day-to-day challenges these people face. It’s a rewarding experience, and it makes me appreciate what I have and what I’ve been able to do.”