Sharing the slopes

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A new community partnership has brought the thrill and excitement of winter sports to underserved youths in Walla Walla.

Over the last several weeks, close to 20 students have traveled to Ski Bluewood to experience skiing and snowboarding, almost all for the first time.

The program came together through the efforts of SOS Outreach, Ski Bluewood and local youth agencies. SOS Outreach is a nonprofit serving underserved youths and teens through outdoor and adventure programs. SOS Outreach is a national group that has worked in the state for years, but with Ski Bluewood for the first time this year.

The partnership began last year, when Ski Bluewood leaders got in touch with SOS Outreach about establishing a new program to serve area youths. Bluewood offered its slopes, some instruction and skiing and snowboarding gear.

Bill Pogue, community outreach coordinator for Bluewood, said finding ways to support local youths is a passion of owners Mike and Kelly Stephenson, and their son Travis, who was the general manager last year and had heard about SOS Outreach.

Pogue said the program came together because of the Stephensons’ desire to introduce local underserved youths to winter sports and bring them up to Bluewood.

“A lot of these kids have no idea that Bluewood even exists,” Pogue said.

Through the United Way of Walla Walla, a few groups working specifically with at-risk or underprivileged youths emerged as potential partners. A group of about 20 youths was put together with kids from the Community Center for Youth, Trilogy Recovery Community, and the Latino Club at Walla Walla High School. Each agency also provided chaperones that traveled up the mountain. Walla Walla Public Schools offered a bus and driver. Between the partner agencies, the costs were covered. SOS Outreach covered the snow gear — pants, jackets, goggles, helmets, gloves — so all teens had to do was show up.

Over five Saturdays starting in February and concluding this weekend, students got to learn either skiing or snowboarding.

Brenda Lopez and Anthony Fernandez are students at Wa-Hi and members of the Latino Club who were each curious about the chance to learn to ski or snowboard, something neither had done before.

“I was excited and scared,” said Fernandez, 16, who came to Walla Walla from Peru in 2011. Fernandez said he had seen snow before, but had never been on a mountain.

Both teens described a rough first day, with lots of falling and many opportunities to get discouraged or frightened away. On the fourth Saturday of the program Fernandez felt confident enough to try a more challenging course.

Lopez also learned not to get discouraged with the challenge of snowboarding.

“When I fell down, I still got back up,” Lopez, 17,said. “I definitely did apply things like not giving up as easy.”

Getting student’s confidence up, and encouraging them to explore new and challenging activities is part of the goal of the Learn to Ride program of SOS Outreach. The program is focused on getting them outdoors, and building character and self-esteem through outdoor sports as the tool, said Rob Gray, youth programs director for SOS Outreach in Seattle.

Teens were asked to take part in a group circle to review the day’s core value. Gray said students have to bring a definition of the core value and discuss it to earn their lift ticket for the day. The core values are courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom and compassion.

“That’s how we try and make it an even more wholesome experience,” Gray said.

About 13 students from the Latino Club participated, with four from CCY and two from Trilogy, said Bill Erickson, Latino Club volunteer and advisor.

Lopez and Fernandez both said they would be open to trying the sports again, but admitted that without a structured program it would be challenging to find time and money to do so.

“It’s a great way to know people and try something new, step out of your comfort zone and do something,” Lopez said about the experience.

Two older youths from Trilogy surprised SOS Outreach coordinators by having ski and snowboarding skills. Since the program is geared primarily for novice skiers and snowboarders, Gray said the young men were asked to take on junior instructor roles.

“We were all caught a little off guard,” Gray said about the experienced participants. “We gave them some coaching, and they really stepped up to the challenge.”

Jason Rood, a young adult in recovery through Trilogy and a student at Walla Walla Community College, said the chance to teach younger skiers was a highlight. Rood said he only makes it out to ski about once a year now because of the cost. Rood and friend Tyler Casebier, a snowboarder, were the junior instructors.

“We have a mountain full of snow and a lot of the kids living in underprivileged areas aren’t able to get to enjoy a lot of the cool things that this area has to offer,” Rood said. “So when a group is able to come up here five times and teach these underprivileged kids how to have fun on the mountain, and being able to help them out financially with it, I think that’s great.”

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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