In 1982, General Robert C. Mathis and his wife, Greta, retired from a 34 year career in the Air Force to bring a family dream to reality. They had long dreamed of creating a place where people with disabilities could experience and share what an able-bodied person might take for granted. They came to Bozeman and established the I Am Third Foundation (based on Matthew 22) to build Eagle Mount.
Early programs took off like a shot
In the fall of 1983, with the help of the Mathises’ son, Harry, and Cyndi Fonda Dabney, the Eagle Mount ski program began to take form. The idea was to start with a modest program of 20 to 30 people, teaching them either Alpine or Nordic skiing. Very quickly, it became necessary to put people on the waiting list after reaching 94 skiers and almost 100 volunteer instructors. People with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, visual and hearing impairments, developmental disabilities, amputations and spinal cord injuries skied one day a week with their own personal volunteer instructor. Eagle Mount had only just begun. The early programs took off like a shot, starting with skiing and followed close behind by horseback riding, swimming and the Big Sky Kids camps for children with cancer.
Facilities grew with inspired gifts
In the mid-eighties, the de Rham family stepped forward with the gift of ten acres of land for a home base. In the mid-nineties a riding arena was donated and moved to Bozeman from Big Sky. In 2007-08, one of the last big pieces of the Mathises’ dream fell into place with the addition of the Tim and Mary Barnard Aquatic Therapy Center. And in 2010, the de Rham family came through once again, with a gift that helped to double Eagle Mount’s campus, now at 19 acres.
No one is turned away
In the early years, there was never enough money. More than once, the fledgling organization came perilously close to folding. But the Mathises never lost faith. Every time things looked grim, they would take heart from the courage of the participants and press forward. Bob and Greta never turned away anyone who could not pay Eagle Mount’s modest program fees, and they never sought government funds. To this day, Eagle Mount is funded entirely through private dollars.
Volunteers: “I get so much more than I give.”
It’s not only the lives of participants that are transformed, but also the lives of volunteers. None of Eagle Mount’s programs would be possible without the generosity of volunteers who love to ski, ride, swim, fish, kayak, climb, cycle, and more. Many of them are experts at the sports they love, and yet they are willing to take time out every week to share their passion with someone who needs extra help getting out there. Eagle Mount provides training for volunteers to help them improve their own skills, learn effective ways to teach, and understand how to provide a safe, fun learning experience for persons with specific disabilities.
It takes a very special community
Eagle Mount could only succeed in a community where people step up to take care of those with special needs. With program enrollments totaling more than 1,700 last year, it took nearly 2,000 able-bodied volunteers, donating over 30,000 hours, to help with all the activities. These are goodhearted people who love Montana and our outdoor lifestyle.
Eagle Mount creates unparalleled therapeutic recreation opportunities for people of all ages and disabilities. Through Eagle Mount, persons with special needs are challenged to achieve the previously unthinkable in skiing, ice skating, swimming, horseback riding, golfing, and more. Children with cancer are given the freedom of normalcy participating in one of three summer oncology camps. At Eagle Mount the grip of a disability is loosened, providing life changing opportunities for all involved.
- What We’ve Learned After 30 Years…
- People with “disabilities” often possess extraordinary gifts.
- Recreation means a lot more than play-time. It translates into “re-creation,” bringing strength, confidence, focus, joy, and freedom into all aspects of a person’s life.
- Volunteers who teach skiing, riding, swimming, kayaking, climbing, fishing, cycling, and more—simply because they want to share the activities they love—make the best teachers of all.
- Volunteerism runs in families, and it’s contagious.
- Our community has become very open and accepting of people with disabilities, valuing their special gifts.
- Our world would be a better place if we could all model the courage, patience and determination we see in people whose abilities are different from our own.