To many families, winter in Tahoe means ski lessons, season passes and bluebird days together at a favorite resort. But not to all: With rising poverty rates, teenage obesity at an all-time high and more single-parent homes than ever before, not all kids have the means or opportunity to learn a winter sport. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations in the area, old and new, that exist to give children the chance to get on the snow.
For more than 60 years, families in Northern Nevada have headed up Mt. Rose Highway to Sky Tavern, where the Sky Tavern Junior Ski Program teaches local youth to ski and ride in a safe environment that fosters learning, family-oriented fun and a lifelong love of snow sports. Kids as young as four ski every weekend during the eight-week program, and each ski day includes a two-hour lesson from professional ski and snowboard volunteer instructors, followed by an afternoon of freeskiing or riding. The mountain also offers an affordable bus program and season meal passes. To support this volunteer-run program, parents take a two-hour shift each weekend, whether in the ski school, cafeteria, lift lines or parking lot.
The impacts of more recent additions to Tahoe’s list of snow-loving nonprofits are already snowballing into bigger things. Clint Lunde, founder and executive director of SkiDUCK (SKIing and snowboarding for Disabled and Underprivileged Children and older Kids), found his inspiration during the winter of 2008–09, when he took the season off from work with a plan to ski for 100-plus days. Lunde broke his ankle on January 15th and although he spent the remainder of the season on the couch, it was a blessing in disguise.
“If I hadn’t done that, I might not have been in the mindset of thinking about, what if I couldn’t ski again?, What about those who can’t ski or snowboard?” says Lunde. “There are a lot of adaptive programs out there, but there’s also another barrier, the finances, for a lot of kids.”
The injury, along with the timeless question of how to combine a personal passion with a lifelong calling, brought Lunde to an epiphany in August 2009. By February 2010, he had several resorts on board, contacts with youth clubs, infrastructure, insurance and the rest, and SkiDUCK held its first event six days later at Squaw Valley USA. That year, four resorts and 130 kids participated for a total of 200 visits. In 2010–11, the program grew fivefold, with 600 kids and 1,000 total visits.
As SkiDUCK evolves, resorts like Squaw make donations of hundreds of snowboards, skis and helmets from the retired rental fleet. Lunde says giving the returning kids their own gear instills “pride of ownership.”
SkiDUCK coordinates with programs like the Boys and Girls Club and Tahoe SAFE Alliance to find children who will benefit from the opportunity of getting out on the snow. Lunde estimates 90 percent of current participants had never been skiing or snowboarding before, and maintains that the immediacy of snow sports distracts from everyday troubles. “You forget about the regular world, and it brings you in the moment and living right now.”
Add a dash of leadership training and an emphasis on core values and you have SOS Outreach (the name derives from Snowboard Outreach Society), a national organization that recently expanded into Tahoe. The program works with children ages 8 to18 who are underserved or disadvantaged, whether economically, socially or academically. Executive director Arn Menconi founded the organization nearly 18 years ago in Vail, Colorado, while working as a snowboard instructor. “In the early ’90s snowboarders were getting a horrible rap about being punks,” he says. “I thought it would be a nice idea if we tried to do something to give back.”
Today SOS Outreach, which has a presence in 15 states, 45 ski resorts and New Zealand, uses individualized sports like skiing, snowboarding and wilderness excursions year-round to teach its five core values of courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom and compassion. “We’re not just an after school P.E. program,” says Menconi, explaining that an introduction to a sport like skiing or snowboarding can help build self-esteem and turn at-risk youth into mentors and leaders. “We’re trying to give them a positive experience so it prevents them or intervenes from at-risk lifestyles.”
SOS Outreach currently works with 13 mountains in the Tahoe area, and gives underserved or disadvantaged kids from Reno, Carson City, Sacramento, even San Francisco the opportunity to participate. Much like SkiDUCK’s system, SOS Outreach uses local youth agencies and schools to identify those who would most benefit. All lift tickets, instruction and equipment is donated, and each child has a mentor who will be a guide on the snow and off.
Programs like TahoeXC’s free Skiing for Schools provide local third, fourth and fifth-grade students from across the Basin the opportunity to take on-the-snow field trips from January to March. The Winter Discovery Center at the Tahoe City cross-country resort also incorporates an hour of academics into each outing to teach kids about winter ecology and watersheds, seasonal flora and fauna, even weather monitoring. Thanks to the program’s several fundraising full-moon yurt dinners each season, along with the occasional charitable donation, the classroom instructor and equipment are already paid for.
Whether physical, educational or character-building, these programs are making a difference in hundreds, if not thousands, of local children’s lives. “When I go out everyone is saying, we really need this here,” says SOS’s Menconi. “There’s a vibe you always feel from place to place, and Tahoe is just so right. This is an easy way to give them a hand up.” TQ. By Jen Schmidt.
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