Maggie Burke, 24, of Waterbury, received an invitation to a White House celebration of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes.MONTPELIER – When President Obama celebrates U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the White House this Wednesday, a Vermonter representing an organization offering sports opportunities to those with disabilities will be there.
Maggie Burke, 24, of Waterbury, received an e-mail invitation to join the president and first lady Michelle Obama at the celebration, which also kicks off the White House's new focus on battling obesity.
Burke is the program coordinator for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, a statewide organization that teams up residents with disabilities with opportunities to ski, hike, swim and enjoy the state's year-round sporting activities.
"It's really amazing," said Burke, who leaves for Washington today. "I'll be representing a great Vermont program that really shows how sports can have a tremendous impact on the lives of people with disabilities."
Vermont Adaptive formed 21 years ago and the mostly volunteer-driven organization works with three major ski organizations – Sugarbush, Bolton Valley and Killington – to help Vermonters with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities get out and enjoy outdoor activities.
"Basically, if someone has an activity that they want to do, we'll make it happen," Burke said.
Just last month Burke was in Vancouver for the U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympics for athletes with disabilities. She was one of six coaches selected by Olympic committee officials and believes that visit led to her being selected to travel to the White House this week.
Burke began working with Vermont Adaptive five years ago as an intern while a student at Green Mountain College, and quickly fell in love with the idea of working with people with disabilities.
Sometimes her job consists of helping a child with autism to watch a chairlift; sometimes she helps a person who lost their limbs get back on the ski slopes. Other times her job is more mundane – coordinating volunteers for the group or even cleaning a toilet.
"We have about 200 volunteers across the state," she said. "They are this organization."
Erin Fernandez, the executive director of Vermont Adaptive, said programs assisting people with disabilities have taken on new importance as more soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come back with serious injuries, including missing limbs.
As the Paralympic movement gains momentum, it needs to connect with the people on the ground, she said.
"There's a whole new generation of Paralympics athletes," she said. "And as the movement grows, they'll need to connect with the grassroots movement."
With several hundred people expected to attend the celebration on the south lawn of the White House, Burke may not get much face time with the Obamas. But if she had the opportunity to chat with the president, she said she would extol the virtues of the program she runs.
"I would tell the president how much it means to people to get out there and be active," she said. "This can really change lives."
On the Web: www.vermontadaptive.org
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