Sending out an SOS
Sending out an SOS Snowboard Outreach Society tackles ‘at-risk’

Adventure Education major Skyeler Congdon gives a few pointers to a Snowboard Outreach Society student before dropping into Purgatory. The program for at-risk youth has grown dramatically since it started five years ago./Photo by Brandon Mathis

by Brandon Mathis

One Snowboard Outreach Society student is linking her first turns. Volunteers, instructors and other students are yelling “yahoos” and other words of encouragement. Coordinator Julie Visnich is as happy as can be.

Five years ago, Arn Menconi, a Chicagoan turned Eagle County commissioner, was at his wits end regarding a movement to put the brakes on snowboarding at Vail Resorts. One day, he decided enough was enough. He took a group of unlikely kids to the slopes and, with the mountain as a classroom, began to teach his brand of social survival in a whole new way.

Five years later at 35 resorts nationwide, the Snowboard Outreach Society has reached more than 5,000 kids. At Durango Mountain Resort, Julie Visnich, a former metropolitan sales executive turned social-worker mountain girl, is responsible for introducing a group of hard-to-reach kids to snowboarding as an effective version of adventure therapy. “You take kids out in a different environment, with a lot of help, support, guidance and curriculum, and you help them get through the experience,” says Visnich. She explains that SOS is a platform for the kids to learn things that they’re having a hard time with in school. “It’s a chance for what we call a pro-social experience,” she says. “Working out conflict, learning to be with people

The program is more than just snowboarding. It targets middle- and high school-aged kids and emphasizes goals and five core values: wisdom, courage, compassion, integrity and discipline. It encourages doing things for others, implementing a community service component for those who wish to advance. Kids that complete the requirements of the “Learn to Ride” portion their first year can return the following season and be in SOS University. They are paired with a sherpa, a kind of mountain mentor, who they work more closely with. At the beginning of each day, the students are required to define a value in exchange for their lift ticket. Circles form and one by one, volunteers, students and teachers alike read aloud their interpreta

Among the SOS crews on the mountain, it’s a question of who is teaching whom. May Sol Dansie, sherpa and Fort Lewis College student, says that she is overwhelmed at how much the kids are showing her. “The whole concept is that you know you are going to fall, but you always get back up even with stronger and greater lessons,” she says. “I think each one of them takes this with them into their everyday life. I’m grateful for my group. It’s really been rewarding.”

Fort Lewis senior Jenny Level has spent two seasons teaching with the program and has enjoyed watching the kids’ progress. “They transform into positive, courageous young adults and even the teachers that come along notice a difference in attitude being outside on the hill verses being inside a building,” she says. “It just shows how different environments are specific to different types of learning.”

Back at the SOS hut, it’s quiet after the high school groups hit the slopes. Angie Anderson, an accountant at Mercy Medical Center, reflects why she still volunteers with the program. “At first I had to do community service, but I just kept coming because I had so much fun,” she says. “It just makes you feel good at the end of the day. I was an at-risk teen, and I wish that I had programs like this when I was growing up. It makes sense to me.”

Snowboard Outreach Society instructor Becca Jacobs helps turn adversity to advantage for one of her students before heading out for the day./Photo by Brandon Mathis

The term “at risk” is used to describe some of the students. “It can mean a lot of things,” Anderson says. “We have kids from DeNier (juvenile corrections), kids from low-income or single-family homes. Some have been in trouble and could continue down the wrong path, and we can use this to kind of guide them in the right direction. We’ve had a couple kids where this program has really changed their lives. It’s worth all this effort.”

This year SOS has expanded to include teachers and social workers from School District 9-R, participating with their students. They all improve together, and often amazing things happens: the roles of teacher and pupil are reversed. “In class they’re beating fractions into a kids head, and then they are out there on the hill together, and the teacher is having a meltdown, and a kid will say ‘Come on Ms. Dustin, you can do it if you stick with it.’ It’s pretty cool,” says Visnich.

With the cost of snowboarding verging on the high end, SOS operates on donated gear, from winter clothing and helmets cleaned out of closets to boots and boards from shops like Inferno Snowboards.

Chuck Lang, a seventh-grade math and science teacher from Miller Middle School, notes, “We have kids that would never have this chance. They would never know this mountain.”

Stephanie Pace, a social worker with 9-R, agrees. “It gives such an opportunity to the kids,” she says. “Coupled with the core values that it teaches, it has such a foundation to it. I look at it as an intervention.”

With this season at a close for the SOS program, Visnich is already looking ahead to next year. There is even a special curriculum being designed around what’s called the Discovery Series. “It’s about social/emotional learning,” she says. “If you’re a teacher and you have a student that is in SOS and you’re looking for another tool to reach them, you can use what we are developing.”

As the students give their last shout outs, they again discuss their value of the day and how they used it. And it seems that everyone is walking away with more than they bargained for, including Visnich. “I’ve gained so much through this program,” she says. “The learning experience has been huge. It has been an honor.”

On the last chair of the day, a sixth-grade student best sums up the program’s intentions. “It’s fun until you fall, but then you just get back up.” •