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Adaptive ski program soars to new heights in Flagstaff

The frigid mountain air rushes past Dennis Grant’s face as he skis down the San Francisco Peaks. His abdomen burns and his arms ache, but he has never felt more alive.

Grant is a double amputee, but that has not stopped him to soaring to new heights thanks to Snowbowl’s adaptive program. This program teaches people with disabilities how to ski, and according to Alex Davenport, the Adaptive Ski and Ride School Supervisor, the program tailors their lessons to each student.

Davenport said that the program offers lessons for a variety of disabilities, such as people with cognitive disabilities, students with visual impairments, amputees, paraplegics and many more. Since the program’s origin in 2011, they have taught around 1,400 lessons and have already completed 500 since November.

“We are a very legitimate program that is growing extremely quickly. Not just because we provide a needed service, but because that’s what’s right for our community,” Davenport said.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Derick Byrd puts his snowboard boot onto his prosthetic leg Monday morning while getting ready for a day's work teaching adaptive ski lessons at the Arizona Snowbowl. Byrd is an instructor with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center Adaptive Ski and Ride School. Byrd first went to the BOEC as a client after he had his leg amputated above the knee as a complication from cancer, and this is his first year working as an instructor.

The instructors and volunteers that participate in the program go through a certification process, which is nationally recognized by a nonprofit organization called the Professional Ski Instructors of America. Additionally, they do an in-house certification that focuses on cognitive and developmental disabilities, as that is their largest demand.

Grant began the program eight years ago and now volunteers for the adaptive program, taking the time to instruct new skiers. Aside from the numerous techniques, Grant teaches his students a valuable life lesson.

“When I first started walking on prosthetics, I fell down a lot,” Grant said. “But you have to get up. It’s the same with skiing: It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, all that matters is that you get back up and try again. Failing is part of the process of winning.”

Grant added that the experience is a tremendous self-esteem boost, and he enjoys the process helping others reach a goal they once thought unachievable.

This week features an event at Snowbowl known as the Skiable Adaptive Alpine Experience, which started Sunday and runs through Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Keelin Wessing, 16, center, chats with her adaptive ski instructor Emily Markel, right, as the pair rides the Hart Prairie chair lift Monday morning at the Arizona Snowbowl. This is the sixth year that Keelin has had Markel as her instructor in the adaptive ski program.

Davenport said that many organizations will be involved. One of them is Arizona Disabled Sports, a nonprofit organization in Phoenix that is responsible for transporting about 12 students for each day. To help with the influx of students, they partner with Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center from Colorado. They come with equipment and instructors and help manage the event.

One factor that has helped increase the program’s popularity is the process of snowmaking.

Davenport said that snowmaking enables the program to have consistent seasons, adding that having snow from mid-November to mid-April greatly helps the program.

“With that steadiness, I’ve been able to train staff and volunteers so that they can be qualified to teach people with disabilities,” Davenport said.

The Northern Arizona Healthcare Foundation has been the underlying reason the program started and has been able to remain active, he added.

"NAHF recognized the importance of outdoor recreation for people with disabilities and invested heavily in our success from the beginning," Davenport said. "[They] continue to be our biggest sponsor every year." 

Trump to call for unity, face skepticism in State of Union

WASHINGTON — The White House says President Donald Trump will call for optimism and unity in today's State of the Union address, using the moment to attempt a reset after two years of bitter partisanship and deeply personal attacks.

But will anyone buy it?

Skepticism will emanate from both sides of the aisle when Trump enters the House chamber for the primetime address to lawmakers and the nation. Democrats, emboldened after the midterm elections and the recent shutdown fight, see little evidence of a president willing to compromise. And even the president's staunchest allies know that bipartisan rhetoric read off a teleprompter is usually undermined by scorching tweets and unpredictable policy maneuvers.

Still, the fact that Trump's advisers feel a need to try a different approach is a tacit acknowledgment that the president's standing is weakened as he begins his third year in office.

The shutdown left some Republicans frustrated over his insistence on a border wall, something they warned him the new Democratic House majority would not bend on. Trump's approval rating during the shutdown dipped to 34 percent, down from 42 percent a month earlier, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the president would use his address "to call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution."

"He's calling for cooperation," she said, adding that Trump will point to examples of where this has happened on his watch. Officials said the president also is expected to highlight infrastructure, trade and prescription drug pricing as areas in which the parties could work together.

But Washington's most recent debate offered few signs of cooperation between Trump and Democrats. Under pressure from conservative backers, Trump refused to sign a government funding bill that did not include money for his long-sought border wall. With hundreds of thousands of Americans missing paychecks, Trump ultimately agreed to reopen the government for three weeks to allow negotiations on border security to continue.

With the new Feb. 15 funding deadline looming, Trump is expected to use his address to outline his demands, which still include funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He's teased the possibility of declaring a national emergency to secure wall funding if Congress doesn't act, though it appeared unlikely he would take that step Tuesday night. Advisers also have been reviewing options to secure some funding without making such a declaration.

"You'll hear the State of the Union, and then you'll see what happens right after the State of the Union," Trump told reporters.

The president's address marks the first time he is speaking before a Congress that is not fully under Republican control. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who won plaudits from Democrats for her hard-line negotiating tactics during the shutdown, will be seated behind the president — a visual reminder of Trump's political opposition.

In the audience will be several Democrats running to challenge Trump in 2020, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party's response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become Georgia's first black governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for Senate.

While White House officials cautioned that Trump's remarks were still being finalized, the president was expected to use some of his televised address to showcase a growing economy. Despite the shutdown, the U.S. economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That's the longest such period on record.

Trump and his top aides also hinted that he is likely to use the address to announce a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Despite the objections of some advisers, Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria.

In a weekend interview with CBS, Trump said efforts to defeat the IS group were "at 99 percent right now. We'll be at 100."

Idaho man killed in officer-involved shooting at Guidance Center

Russell Henry Harold, 47, from Boise, Idaho, was identified by the Flagstaff Police Department after he was shot and killed Sunday by an officer who was exiting The Guidance Center, the department reports.

Harold approached officer Tyler Romney with two knives raised toward Romney, the department reports. Romney had been leaving The Guidance Center with another officer after an unrelated call and told Harold to drop the knives, according to Charles Hernandez, spokesperson for the Flagstaff Police Department.

Romney fired his weapon after Harold charged the officer, Hernandez said. Police say they provided life-saving measures until medical assistance arrived. Harold was transported to the Flagstaff Medical Center, where he was declared dead.

Romney has worked with the police department for over three years, according to Hernandez. He was placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation, Hernandez said.

"There is an internal affairs investigation currently being conducted by the Flagstaff Police Department Professional Standard's Office," Hernandez said about the officer's use of force.

The Coconino County Sheriff's Office is investigating the case, which is still considered an open investigation.

Jon Paxton, spokesperson for the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, said Harold had no previous crimes committed in the region, but was registered as a sex offender in Pittsburgh.

A video of the incident was released on the Flagstaff Police Department's transparency website showing Harold approach the officers with his knives raised. The body camera captured the video 30 seconds prior to its activation, without audio, and was redacted just before the shooting.

This is the second officer-involved shooting in the Flagstaff area in the last 11 days, following the incident in the Railroad Springs neighborhood on Jan. 23.

FUSD’s Penca linked to improper disbursements in Mason City

Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Mike Penca made national news last month when a special investigation uncovered a north Iowa school district’s $2.2 million in improper disbursements made over eight years, during which Penca served as interim superintendent.

Penca said he has been transparent with the FUSD Governing Board about his experiences in Iowa, including the re-audit process that resulted in this investigation.

FUSD Communications Director Zachery Fountain stated there are no scheduled actions or responses to the report from the district at this time.

Before relocating to Flagstaff, Penca served as the interim superintendent of the Mason City Community School District (MCCSD) from July 2016 to June 2017, following the departure of Superintendent Anita Micich, who had held the position since 2009.

In the report, released Dec. 28, Auditor of State Mary Mosiman identified a total of $2,238,952.08 of improper disbursements issued from July 1, 2009 through August 31, 2017, including $1.3 million in unapproved salary increases given to MCCSD administrators and $171,998.36 for Micich’s resignation package.

A total of 66 employees, current and former, who received these salary increases were listed in the report. Micich received the most funds at nearly $474,000 in total improper salary and benefits over the eight-year period. Penca ranked 15th on the list, with $39,000 total improper funds.

MCCSD officials and board members have displayed frustration with the investigation, and especially the release of these names, the Globe Gazette reported.

Dave Versteeg, current MCCSD superintendent, wrote in a district-wide email after the report was released, “There are 28 current employees of the district (along with 32 former employees) listed in the report as being improperly overpaid. These current employees did nothing wrong. The notion they were improperly paid is based on procedural process not in their control, not legal rule.”

Penca began working for MCCSD in 1996 as a kindergarten teacher and later served as an elementary school principal at various schools and executive director for learning supports and PK-4 programs.

“I held myself to high standards of service and integrity during my 20-year career at MCCSD as a teacher, administrator, and interim superintendent,” Penca said in a statement. “The Iowa Auditor of State report highlights systemic findings with processes and procedures put in place prior to my time as the interim superintendent in Mason City. I worked diligently and collaboratively with the MCCSD Governing Board and the subsequent superintendent in 2017 to address matters as they came to our attention.”

The investigation was requested by district officials, who were concerned by the allocation of salary increases and contributions to tax-sheltered annuity (TSA) accounts, during a meeting regarding MCCSD’s reaudit of the 2015 fiscal year.

Fountain explained that FUSD has a system of checks and balances in place to prevent such incidents. This system includes adhering to the Uniform System of Financial Reporting, which calls for bringing contracts and budgetary items before the governing board for approval. The FUSD finance team also works closely with regulatory agencies “to ensure compliance with applicable laws and standards of practices.”

He added that the annual audits conducted by the district’s finance team have received above-average ratings from the Government Financial Officers Association and the Association of School Business Officials International.

“The findings in the Mason City School District audit report do not reflect the high standards set in [FUSD] policies and practices,” Penca said.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Mike Penca stands inside his office at the Flagstaff Unified School District offices on Sparrow Avenue.