While a group of eight participants in the Wonder Lake Water Ski Team's NISRA Learn to Ski Program seemed eager to get their feet wet this year, there was one skier who wasn't as thrilled about jumping into Wonder Lake.
"It was the first day, and he didn't want anything to do with the water," said Stephanie Ehardt, Wonder Lake Ski Team member. "But by the end of the program, he was out on the water waving to the crowd."
It was a scene that not only brought Ehardt close to tears, but also reminded her of why she stayed with the program since it started 12 years ago.
"It’s so much fun to see them having so much fun," Ehardt said. "We can’t help but smile."
In addition to being a member of the senior team, Ehardt is a coordinator of the ski team's partnership with the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association. Through this union, the water ski team organizes summer practices where members teach NISRA participants the basics of water skiing, concluding the program with a show.
This year's show took place June 12 and drew crowds of friends, family, ski team members and Wonder Lake locals. As each participant took to the water, announcers Derek Hartmann and Patrick Sullivan read off answers the skier and their parents gave to the pre-show questionnaire.
Afterward, each skier received a participation award and a goodie bag, along with a team T-shirt, a pair of sunglasses or a hat. They also got the opportunity to speak into the announcer's microphone, talking about what they liked about the program and if they planned on returning next year.
"There's no theme to the show because it's all about them," Ehardt said.
From building upon skills learned in previous years to trying on water skis for the first time, the NISRA participants range in a wide set of skill levels, making for a great final show, Wonder Lake Ski Team show director Brianna Hartmann said.
"They're showing how much progress they have made over practices," Hartmann said. "It's such a cool thing to watch them do something they never thought they would ever be able to do."
This sentiment served as the core of what Ehardt's mother, Janet Carran, and Hartmann's father, Bill, and aunt, Patti, were trying to accomplish when they first reached out to former NISRA Superintendent of Recreation Maribeth Hutchinson. Since its inception as a community outreach program in 2006, the program has helped the team's partnership with NISRA grow stronger, Ehardt said.
"We’ve had a lot of people from our team work summer jobs there," Ehardt said. "It's also inspired a lot of people to continue working with people with special needs."
Hartmann is one of those people. From volunteering as an instructor when she was a teenager, to now being the team's show director, Hartmann has found that this work is something she feels passionate about.
"It's definitely more than just a program," Hartmann said. "Just because you have a certain diagnosis, doesn't mean that you can't do what I can do, and I want to help you succeed."
The team's 12 years of work has not gone unnoticed. The ski team was the 2016 recipient of NISRA's Partner of the Year Award.
"It was cool to see something that we're doing is also something that another organization benefits from and also enjoys," Hartmann said.
Despite the award, which Hartmann and Ehardt consider a great honor, they both can agree the true satisfaction comes from looking back on the fun little anecdotes of coming out to the water and working with the participants every summer.
Ehardt recalls one participant in particular who excelled through the skill levels very quickly. Stash Nowicki of Wauconda went from rudimentary techniques to skiing on one ski and slaloming, racing down a winding path while avoiding obstacles – all in three days.
"The smiles on their faces makes it so worth it," Ehardt said. "We can really get into the competition of this sport, and sometimes we miss the really fun aspects of skiing. [This program] is my favorite couple of weeks of the summer."
Editor's note: The spelling of Hartmann's last name and Patti's first name have been changed to reflect the correct spellings. The relation of Brianna and Patti has also been changed to reflect the fact that Brianna is her niece.