Last fall, when Ketchum residents Scott and Devra Mary heard about the Host Town program, in which visiting Special Olympic athletes would stay with families in Idaho, they wanted in.
The intent of the program is to help the athletes unwind after a long journey while accustoming themselves to the altitude and culture.
With help from the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau and the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games Organizing Committee, several local groups volunteered to adopt a delegation for their stay. The organizations include the Sawtooth Board of Realtors, Habitat for Humanity, Girl Scouts of Silver Sage Unit 21, Wood River YMCA, City of Hailey/Hailey Chamber, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood.
As real estate agents—they own Bald Mountain Realty—the Marys were part of the Sawtooth Board of Realtors' contingency, which among its members hosted delegations from Finland, Slovenia and the Georgia Republic.
Not long after the Marys committed to participate, an acquaintance came to town and decided to stay in their detached guest cottage after the initial visit. Devra said that when she told her children, Brock, 10, and Audra, 8, that they had to cancel the athletes' stay due to lack of space, they were insistent. In fact, they offered their bedrooms to the Finish athletes, and said they'd sleep in sleeping bags in the living room.
"Because of that they had an instant camaraderie with the kids right from the beginning," Devra said.
On Wednesday, the Finns arrived at 1:30 a.m. after a 22-hour journey from their homes in Finland. Busses hired by the Sawtooth Board of Realtors brought the 26 members of the Finnish delegation to the valley directly from the Boise Airport.
Their visitors, Sami Karhonan and Juha Häkkinen, both 32, are snowshoers now competing in McCall. They have been best friends since they were 4. Karhonan won silver and bronze medals in the World Winter Games in 2005 in Nagano, Japan.
"Everything was beautiful," Devra said. "It was difficult to communicate sometimes because Sami speaks some English but Juha speaks none. But they love to say OK. And they were just full of energy and enthusiasm, with positive attitudes, and so organized. It was an experience of a lifetime on many different levels, a gift and a privilege."
One day, Brock and Audra brought them to their classrooms to introduce them to their classmates at Hemingway Elementary School. Serendipitously, Hemingway's curriculum had included study on Finland. On Thursday the Sawtooth Board of Realtors hosted the entire group of host families and visitors—some 200 people—at the Elkhorn Supper Club.
Another highlight of the visit was an impromptu trip to Redfish Lake to picnic and snowshoe.
"We assumed they wanted to snowshoe and had their equipment," Devra said. "But the coach had the equipment. So we went to Backwoods (Mountain Sports) to rent and they gave them the regular snowshoes. But Sami and Juha pointed at different ones on the wall. They knew which ones they wanted. They don't walk, they run. This is their sport. Mark Carnes (a Backwoods employee) did a 180 and said, 'They have something to teach us.'"
The snowshoe excursion was "a perfect icebreaker, quiet and lovely," Devra said.
They snowshoed about eight kilometers around Redfish and then sat on the dock for a picnic. While they ate, a snowmobile emerged from the fog over the lake like an apparition.
"The snowmobile was coming across the middle of the lake, which is covered with snow, pulling skiers who looked giant because they were wearing huge packs. The driver was going really slow and as he goes by he's staring at us, and we're staring at them. We were the only people up there. Then suddenly the driver stops, throws off his goggles and runs over."
He had spotted Karhonan and Häkkinen in their Finnish team jackets.
"He asked, 'Are you Olympic athletes? I am such a big fan, I'm going to all the events," Devra said. "His friends are there smiling and listening. It was such a sweet moment."
As melancholy as the Marys were when their guests left, they continue to volunteer by serving meals at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood each day for about 600 people.
On Sunday, Brock had what he claimed was the best night of his life. When he got home he told Audra, who had a cold, that he'd "met 100 new friends."
"I can't even express enough what this is doing for the community," Devra said. "The radiance of these athletes is just contagious. It feels like we're experiencing the world in our backyard."
Dana DuGan: firstname.lastname@example.org