SOS Youth Skiers Thrive on Slopes and Life
If you are a skier or a snowboarder, you know it is an expensive sport. The economic barriers to entry mean that snowsports are a predominantly ‘rich white kid’ sport: very few minority and low income populations are able to participate. SOS Outreach is trying to change that. With programs at 32 ski resorts nationally, SOS is a youth development nonprofit that is helping change the face of snowsports by providing gear, lift tickets and instruction to 5,000 at-risk youth annually.SOS students and sherpa mentors circle up with their group and discuss the value of the day at the base of Ski Cooper.
This weekend SOS students will be hitting the slopes at Vail, Breckenridge, the Summit at Snoqualmie, Heavenly Mountain, Mt. Hood Meadows and so many others. Nearly 400 of those are participants in University, SOS’s long-term leadership development curriculum.
SOS’s students come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are struggling with academics, the ones whose grades and attendance records don’t bode well for their high school graduation. Others come from troubled home lives, and have seen too much of drugs, alcohol, abandonment, or violence in their young lives. Still others are low-income, speak English as a second language, or have been involved with the courts. But regardless of their backgrounds, all students are equal as they learn to ski or ride and learn SOS’s core values.
On Ride Days and at other SOS events, students are part of a close community, bigger than themselves. The morning starts as students circle up with their group and discuss the value of the day. Whether they are defining courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, compassion or humility, each member of the group is encouraged to contribute as students learn to listen to each other’s thoughts.
Watching students gain confidence during morning circles is one of the most exciting aspects of the program. As one student explained: “At first, I was scared to talk in the circle. I’m still scared, but I can do it now!”
When they hit the slopes, Mentors and Junior Mentors – previous graduates of the program – encourage them as they link turns and challenge themselves to improve their snowsport skills. For many students, their time with their mentors is the most consistent positive adult interaction that they have.
Starting in 2009, SOS has developed a year-round extension of the University curriculum, allowing that positive adult interaction to continue throughout the year. Approximately 525 Colorado students, including many of the participants riding this weekend, will continue into summer programming. In addition to the skiing and snowboarding ride days, they will also participate in rock climbing days and backpacking trips, among other summer adventures.
The positive interaction doesn’t stop at the end of the activity day though. Mentors continue to meet with their students off the hill. Students and their mentors complete service projects in their communities, practice leadership skills, and implement social justice advocacy projects in their schools. This year students have shoveled sidewalks, packed thanksgiving baskets, and planted community gardens.
Through service, University students learn the importance – and the joy – of giving back to their communities. As one 2nd Year University student explained: “Doing service learning projects makes me have a good feeling afterward. Just the simple feeling of knowing I’m being helpful to the community, or a person in general, lets me know I’m making good choices.”
That level of compassion will be on display as SOS groups ride this weekend. It will be visible as students encourage each other towards their goals. It will be seen in how interested and committed mentors are in their kids’ lives. It will be there in every lift ticket, every board, every pair of gloves, all donated by invested, caring corporations and individuals.
If you see an SOS group on the hill this weekend, stop and watch for second. Despite the various challenges they face at home or at school, these kids are pouring themselves into the sport and into building positive relationships with their peers and mentors. It’s inspiring to see them change their lives – don’t miss it.