FORT KENT, Maine — A good way to judge the success of any event is if the volunteers are having as much fun as the participants.
That was certainly the case Thursday at the 10th Mountain Ski Lodge during the third annual Ride For All which brought more than 50 clients from three St. John Valley developmentally challenged adult day program centers together for a day of snowmobiling.
“It really is hard to say who is having more fun,” James Marquis, event coordinator, said. “Everyone is smiling.”
The Fort Kent event is patterned after a similar activity in Presque Isle and hits close to home for James Marquis and his brother Bob Marquis, both avid snowmobilers.
“Our brother Patrick has Down syndrome,” James Marquis said. “After we saw what they did in Presque Isle, we wanted to do something up here for Patrick and the other clients [and] it allows him and the others to be out participating and not just sitting around watching others have fun.”
James and Bob’s sister Claudette Paradis was in the thick of it as well, volunteering her time in the lodge’s kitchen.
Once James and Bob Marquis began talking about the project around Fort Kent three years ago, it didn’t take long for the local snowmobile dealers to hop on board.
“Audibert Polaris and Corriveau Arctic Cat both designed and built special sleds that can each carry two wheelchairs or we can put seats in them,” James Marquis said.
On Thursday, about 25 members of the Fort Kent Sno Riders Snowmobile Club brought their own machines and took turns pulling those custom sleds filled with cheering and waiving clients from the Powell Memorial Center in Eagle Lake, St. John Valley Associates in Madawaska and Northern Aroostook Alternatives in Van Buren around a 1-mile circuit.
“Most of these people would never have the opportunity to go out for rides like this,” James Marquis said. “We felt it was an important thing to do.”
Ryan Murphy, who works with developmentally challenged adults in Madawaska, agreed.
“The clients love it [and] it makes them feel a real sense of normalization,” Murphy said. “Plus the community gets the opportunity to see our clients involved in a social setting.”
Murphy, who seemed to be spending much of the day unsuccessfully avoiding efforts of his clients to put snow down the back of his jacket, had high praise for the Fort Kent volunteers.
“It is so wonderful — look at the riders’ faces; their smiles say it all,” Murphy said. “Other than me getting white-washed every five minutes, it’s all great.”
Every 20 minutes or so, snowmobiles pulling the special sleds came around the front of the lodge, passengers waving and smiling and some refusing to get off the sleds.
“We have some that will go around and around all day,” Bob Marquis said. “It’s so nice to see these people having so much fun doing something that makes them so happy.”
Mike Daigle is the president of the Fort Kent Sno Riders and said convincing club members to help out for the day was not difficult at all.
“I think our whole club is here,” Daigle said. “When they are asked, they just show up with their machines and their own gas.”
In fact, according to Marquis, volunteers who have helped out in past years have warned him he’d be in big trouble if he did not invite them back again.
“This is so awesome,” Jessica St. Jean, one of those volunteers, said while standing next to her own machine. “It’s so much fun for us to see all the smiles on their faces.”
One of those smiling was Sara who took just enough time to dash inside for a quick mug of cocoa before running back out and hopping back onto the sled.
“It’s cold but fun,” she said. “I’m going back out again and again.”
As far as James Marquis and his crew of volunteers were concerned, Sara and her friend were welcome to ride the trails as long as the daylight and smiles held out.
“I get tears in my eyes watching this,” Paradis said. “I see all these people here riding and helping out [and] it means somebody cares.”