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By Eileen Ogintz
Persistence is the key.
Getting up when you fall, trying again when you fail.
"Who can tell me something you've been persistent about?" asked Megan Skiles, 24, of the 34 kids sitting in a circle in the snow at the base of Bolton Valley Ski Area in Vermont (www.BoltonValley.com).
They look like any group of young snowboarders decked out in the latest Burton gear, but looks, as we know, can be deceiving. These kids can't afford snow sports or the gear, much less bus fare to the mountain. In fact, some live in homeless shelters, others live in group homes around Burlington, Vt., about a half-hour's drive from this locally-owned ski area. Some have been in trouble with the law.
They are here thanks to Jake Burton Carpenter, the founder of Burton Snowboards and the recognized pioneer of the snowboard industry. When Burton gained success, he and his wife, Donna, decided they wanted to help the community by introducing snowboarding to kids who otherwise would never have the opportunity. As a result, CHILL (www.chill.org) was started here 14 years ago with just a handful of kids. Since then, thanks to partnerships with ski resorts and private donations, it has reached more than 12,000 youth in 14 North American cities and those as far away as Sydney, Australia and Innsbruck, Austria.
"Even if you try and don't make it, that doesn't mean you are bad at it. You just have to try again." Says Bleonda Sulejmani, 12, who is in the second week of the program at Bolton Valley.
"Everyone is in this together so you don't have to worry about looking stupid," adds her friend Jasmina Kokorovic, 13.
Every week for six weeks kids between the ages of 10 to 18, like Jasmina and Bleonda, are bused to a mountain near where they live, outfitted from head to toe and taught to snowboard. They're also taught plenty of life lessons. "Snowboarding is just the vehicle," says Ryan Townsley, CHILL's national coordinator. "Anything you can do to help kids find success will help them build self-esteem."
In Colorado, an even larger effort -- SOS Outreach (www.sosoutreach.org) -- aims to reach more than 5,000 girls and boys this season through skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. This summer they'll offer wilderness programs as well. According to SOS program founder Arn Menconi, 70 percent of the children served are minorities. "This is a lot more than teaching kids how to turn on the mountain. This is about using sports to do character development." These kids go on to do community service, vocational training and leadership training. "Ultimately, this changes their whole outlook," Menconi explains.
Such programs are just as beneficial to the snow sports industry as they are to underserved youngsters. "It's critical for our industry to reach out to include as broad a constituency as possible," as a way to grow the industry, says Rob Katz, CEO of
"Sure you hope they'll become lifelong snowboarders," says Larry Williams, one of the owners of Bolton Valley, a small area that appeals to local families because it is so affordable ($39 lift tickets during the week. Check out the kids-free deals for Presidents' Day week). But the reality, he adds, is that "Bolton Valley is a community mountain and this is a good thing for us to do for our community."
Both SOS Outreach and CHILL say they could serve a lot more youngsters if they had more resources, including additional Americorps Vista volunteers like Megan Skiles. They applaud President Obama's stimulus package, which includes $200 million to support 16,000 new members of Americorps Vista -- hopefully some that might come to the mountains. "The leaders of the snow sports industry and government need to think about the urgency of youth development programs like this, both for the growth of the industry and for the kids' well-being" says Menconi.
"When someone gets to the top of the mountain and conquers the mountain," he says, "That has a profound effect on developing their self-confidence."
Clearly, these programs are doing something right. The kids' social workers and counselors report a dramatic improvement in their schoolwork and behavior. "It really makes a difference when people encourage you," explains Jasmina.
That's true for the new-to-snowboarding crew I've brought up to Bolton Valley this weekend, thanks to CHILL and Bolton Valley. These five inner-city teens, unlike those from CHILL and SOS Outreach, are all achievers, selected by the national program called A Better Chance (www.ABetterchance.org) to attend high school in my suburban Connecticut community. They all live in a group house supervised by house parents who are local teachers. The boys spend weekends with local families, including mine. Only one has ever been snowboarding and they wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity.
In this economy, ski resorts are doing all they can to draw in customers -- free lodging nights, free lift tickets and free lessons. But what they need to do most, I think, watching the boys laugh as they try to navigate turns and the bunny hill, having a terrific time, is to work harder to reach kids like these.
"Smooth ... just like a dancer," CHILL instructor Jay Hirsch tells our group. The boys are cold, but they don't give up. They laugh at themselves -- and each other. By Sunday, they're all proficient enough to ride the lifts and are clearly proud of themselves. And, of course, the experience is about a lot more than navigating turns down a mountain slope. It's about navigating comfortably in unfamiliar turf, and taking on a new challenge. It's about what traveling to new places can teach all of us.
"I didn't think I'd be as successful," acknowledges Jeff Arias, a high school senior. "I'm going home on a high note," adds Emerson Lovell, a freshman.
"It's unbelievable what these kids can accomplish," says Townsley. "All they need is a little support."
Already, after just two weeks, Bleonda Sulejmani tells me, her grades are improving. "You leave here so happy you think you can do anything," she says.
And she can.
© Eileen Ogintz
Taking the Kids - How Snow Sports Can Transform a Child's Life