Snowboard salvation
Outreach program gets at-risk kids on the slopes

Two participants in last winter’s Learn to Ride program sponsored by the Snowboard Outreach Society ride the Columbine Lift at Durango Mountain Resort’s beginner area. Last year was the first official year for the program, which teaches local kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance, how to snowboard while instilling life skills. The program graduated 50 kids last year and hopes to do the same this year. There are SOS programs at about 25 major resorts throughout the country./Courtesy photo.

by Missy Votel

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – snowboarding, that is.

Since last winter, local at-risk kids have been taking part in a novel program that uses snowboarding as unconventional therapy, turning what can be a frustrating and humbling learning experience into an empowering one.

“We take them into a setting they’re not comfortable with. But with a ton of support, they get to master the sport and feel pretty great,” said Julie Visnich, local snowboarder turned director of the local chapter of the Snowboard Outreach Society, or SOS.

The organization was founded in 1993 in Vail as a way to teach kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity, how to snowboard, in the process, learning the tools to overcome adversity and challenges in their daily lives. Over the course of five days, the kids – using donated boards, clothing and lift tickets – team up with instructors and adult volunteers, going from total novices to capable riders.

“Snowboarding is perfect because it has a high learning curve, but the kids can feel a sense of accomplishment when they’re done,” said Visnich. She recounts the story of a girl from the DeNier Youth Center who participated in last year’s program and wanted to give up almost immediately. “She was so horrified at how hard it was. But on the last day, we showed her a video of herself snowboarding, and if she was a cartoon character, you would have seen cartoon hearts shooting out of her head and out of her chest, she was so proud.”

Visnich, a former software saleswoman from Washingotn, D.C., moved to Durango six years ago, where she traded in the corporate lifestyle for that of a snowboard instructor. For the last five years, she has put on SheRide, an all-womens snowboard camp at Durango Mountain Resort. Once in Durango, she returned to school, working toward a masters degree in social work at the University of Denver. It was during an internship at DeNier during the winter of 2004-05 that she hatched the idea to take some kids snowboarding. “It was all just a way to get us out of jail, truthfully,” she said.

When she pitched her idea to the center’s director, she was told about SOS. Visnich called the organization, which offered up some clothing. And a few weeks later, armed with donated boards from Bubbas and Inferno, and lift tickets courtesy DMR, Visnich and seven young proteges hit the slopes. That first foray was so successful that the following winter, it snowballed into a larger, more official program that graduated 50 at-risk youth from the area.

“It was crazy to go from seven to 50,” said Visnich, who was able to secure boards and boots from the Adaptive Sports Association and tickets from DMR for the inaugural season.

Visnich, who also works as a counselor, said the students were referred to SOS by school social workers. The kids were chosen based upon factors that put them at risk for failure, such as broken families, drug abuse, criminal behavior, learning disabilities and poverty. “Basically, a risk factor is anything that’s stacked against you in the deck of life,” said Visnich.

As she explains it, the program is set up not only to build physical resiliency, but emotional and mental resiliency as well. “You are resilient if you can make it, regardless of your risks,” she said.

In order to build resiliency, the SOS Learn to Ride program incorporates five basic “core values:” courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom and compassion. Visnich said the seeds for this are sown even before the kids hit the snow with the help of their social workers, who work with them on the five values. Once on the snow, the kids put what they’ve learned to use, each day focusing on one of the values. “Before I give them their lift ticket, they have to give me their definition of the word for the day. Then, at the end of the day, we talk about how they used it,” Visnich said. Examples can range from using courage to load the chairlift to summoning discipline to control one’s anger. She said for most kids with positive role models, such basic values are ingrained. But navigating through life can be difficult for her kids, who haven’t had such a benefit. “A lot of these kids, they’re kind of working without a net,” she said.

In addition to incorporating the core values, the students also are required to learn some self sufficiency. For example, each morning they have to set up their bindings and each afternoon they have to break them down for the next user. “I learned that the hard way after the first year when I was doing it all myself,” Visnich admits. Furthermore, students are required to come up with at least part of the $50 program fee on their own. “The more ownership they take, the more valuable it is for them.”

Of Visnich’s 50 students last year, 10 will be returning this season to take part in SOS University, a four-year program that incorporates community service as well as a full-time mentor, or “sherpa.” Upon graduation, the students can go onto become “junior sherpas,” or assistant mentors for other kids going through the program.

In addition to her returning “freshman class,” Visnich expects about 50 students again this season for the Learn to Ride segment. In fact, the program has proved so popular that she has had to turn students away. Nevertheless, she said the program is still struggling to make ends meet and is in need of several boards, pairs of boots and bindings, as well as volunteers to work with the Learn to Ride program. She hopes to secure a roving gear van for this season, which will house the students and their gear and create a space for them to dress and regroup. Ultimately, she would like to approach School District 9-R about providing a school bus to transport the students, who are now mostly driven by their social workers.

“It’s so much work getting this thing going that sometimes I just want to throw my hands up,” admitted Visnich. “But then, you get out there and see how powerful the program is and say, ‘Damn, I’ve got to keep this going.’”

Visnich isn’t the only one who wants to see SOS succeed. The program also has the blessing of San Juan Board of Cooperative Services, the group that provides special education services such as social workers and therapists to the area’s five school districts. “I think it’s a valuable program because of the five touchstones,” said Royce Tranum, chair of the Social Work Department for San Juan BOCS. “It hits on a lot of the social and emotional issues that we’re working on with students. I feel there’s some connection there.”

But even more importantly, Tranum said the program is teaching kids something completely new: self confidence. “I definitely saw that the kids had a real eagerness to try something new, which is not characteristic with these kids because they’ve had so much failure,” she said. “Just that is motivation enough to continue.”

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