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Twenty years is a long time to stay in one job, to work for one company or organization. Seriously, who does that anymore? Not many. According to a report from 2020 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of years that employees have worked for their current employer is 4.1 years.
On Friday, Jan. 14, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports’ Executive Director Erin Fernandez officially quadrupled that.
That day marked Fernandez’s 20th anniversary working at Vermont Adaptive, the largest nonprofit in Vermont to provide year-round sports and recreational programs in multiple locations throughout the state to people with disabilities.
She joined Vermont Adaptive in 2002 and dove right in, sending the first Vermont Adaptive Alpine Ski Team to participate in the Northeast Diana Golden Race Series. She developed, trained and sponsored athletes to participate in the series, which provided the opportunity for athletes to become familiar with the sport of alpine ski racing in a fun and supportive environment.
Her accomplishments continued from there, growing the organization into a national leader in adaptive sports. Early on in her tenure, in 2004, she aligned the organization with the U.S. Paralympics as an official partner and Paralympic Sport Club. The U.S. Paralympics is the sanctioning body for the U.S. Olympics and hosts the Paralympics Games following the Olympic Games.
In 2007, Fernandez developed a partnership with the United States Association for Blind Athletes (USABA) to offer the first National Winter Festival “learn to ski, learn to race and Nordic event” for visually impaired and blind athletes. Vermont Adaptive has hosted this national event ever since (2021 was the first year it was cancelled due to the pandemic).
The organization expanded, serving more people in more locations year-round. Bolton Valley Ski Area became a third winter program location (in addition to Pico Mountain and Sugarbush Resort), providing residents in Burlington and Chittenden county a convenient location for winter adaptive sports and recreation. She introduced new programs including the EcoAble environmental initiative, CORE Connections wellness retreats, year-round Veteran Ventures programs, adaptive mountain biking, special fundraising events, and more.
The infrastructure of the organization grew, too. Fernandez was the second paid full-time executive director at Vermont Adaptive when she was hired in 2002 with a few paid staff and many, many volunteers.
Today, the organization employees 12 full-time, year-round staff members and has an annual budget of approximately $1.5 million. Fernandez has doubled wages for employees and added comprehensive employee benefits and training, making Vermont Adaptive a desirable place to work.
Continuing to fulfill the organization’s mission to empower individuals with disabilities and promote independence and further equality through access and instruction to sports and recreational activities, in 2013 Fernandez embarked and completed the first of three phases of a permanent homes campaign in the state. The adaptive sports facility, the $1.3 million Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge at Pico Mountain, opened in 2013 and was the first adaptive sports center in Vermont. The fully accessible space was designed for the unique needs of clients and families for programs, administration and storage.
In December 2021, the second adaptive sports facility, the $2.5 million Murphy’s Annex at Vermont Adaptive – Sugarbush’s Mt. Ellen, opened despite the pandemic. Prior to the opening, Vermont Adaptive functioned out of 400 sq. ft. of borrowed space in the resort’s existing base lodge. Now, athletes, families, race team members and volunteers can spread out, enjoying three floors and 4,000 sq. ft. of year-round recreational, retreat and activity space, plus administrative offices and an elevator.
Never one to rest, Fernandez will now embark on the development of the third permanent home of the campaign, with a new location on the Burlington waterfront and bike path in the next few years (the organization is currently using space at the Community Sailing Center). In addition, she plans to create a retreat center in Central Vermont for the Veteran Ventures program, establish intern housing for the organization’s annual 15-20 interns, and continue to work closely with state entities to push Vermont Adaptive and the breadth of its programs and services into the future.
So what does the future look like going forward for Fernandez and Vermont Adaptive?
“To ensure we are sustainable,” she said. “Looking 20-30 years out? That’s tough. Envisioning within 10 years is a little more realistic. I envision capitalizing on our current momentum and drawing in more donors and more resources, adding more staff and infrastructure. When we invest in the organization and stay true to our values, our outcomes improve – more opportunities for our athletes in more locations. Better modern adaptive sports equipment. Improved training. Increased volunteer participation. Ultimately more adventures and great experiences for every BODY.”
To learn more about Vermont Adaptive, visit www.vermontadaptive.org.
Q & A with Executive Director Erin Fernandez on Her 20th Work Anniversary
Q: What is your biggest accomplishment at Vermont Adaptive in your 20 years?
A: There’s obvious overall growth. The greatest outcomes and experiences are seriously not mine. Everything that has been accomplished is because of great staff, dedicated board members, talented volunteers and generous donors.
It’s our relationships, our integrity, our communities, our partners. You need all those ingredients; they are all equally important.
Q: How do you feel the organization has changed from the day you started to now?
A: We’re a stronger organization overall. I hope people would agree we’ve earned trust. Through great experiences in programs we’ve earned respect. More people believe we can accomplish goals we set, that we are resilient. People want to be involved, to work here, to volunteer, to have an adventure, to come play.
Q: Why have you stayed in a job for 20 years? What keeps you going?
A: I still have goals I need to accomplish. I’m goal oriented. Complacency bothers me. It’s not that I’m constantly in a state of dissatisfaction, I just continue to see opportunities. I can’t help it. But at Vermont Adaptive each and every day is different. There are always challenges. But equally for the challenges and hard days, it’s amazing how little things or a kind gesture can make it all worthwhile. I’m definitely always observing. Plenty of people don’t know me on a personal level so when I’m around programs I witness the authenticity of an experience, the interactions. The volunteers, the athletes, the families. I really think there’s a lot you learn from a little anonymity and observing.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: Personally? Making hard decisions. Learning to say no. Organizationally? Building on original value – the Vermont Adaptive commitment to making adventures happen regardless of ability to pay. And to providing experiences for all ages, abilities and populations.
Q: What do you wish could have happened differently/better in the past 20 years?
A: Stress less. Have more patience. Play more.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge/struggle/stressor?
A: Trying to remain objective. To be fair but not bend to someone’s personal interests or influence. To put equal effort toward all the facets of our organization, especially to our participants. Recognizing and respecting the diversity of populations. It’s easy to focus, find resources, enthusiasm, improve and develop programs and invest in equipment to serve one genre of population. It’s not so easy to elevate programs for all ages, multiple types of recreation, to diverse abilities, for every BODY. It’s a responsibility I take seriously.
Q: What would you tell someone who’s considering becoming an ED of a nonprofit?
A: It’s cliché but simple. Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours burn any brighter. Do the opposite. Surround yourself with the best, most skilled, talented people.