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Building a bridge at home

Adia Waldburger, of the Record staff

What better way to build a bridge than to start in your own backyard?

That’s what University of Utah education professor Karen Johnson thought when she heard about skeleton athlete Troy Billington’s Building Bridges program. Billington had been running an exchange program of sorts for a couple of years that brought youth from his native Virgin Islands to Park City to try out various winter sports at the Utah Olympic Park’s (UOP) summer adventure camps. Johnson thought it would be great to take the program a step further and identify kids in Salt Lake and eventually Park City to participate in the program. Johnson, who is African-American, is primarily interested in involving minority children who might not otherwise consider winter sports as an option.

"I was impressed by what he was doing, so I wanted a program like this to be geared to kids of color in Olympic sports," Johnson said.

In order to identify candidates she partnered with her colleague at the university, Kristina Gibby-Whachter, who already has an existing non-profit called Reach Schools. The non-profit was created last year by Gibby-Whachter and one of her undergraduate classes to provide relief to schools affected by Hurricane Katrina as well as other marginalized communities. With an already established non-profit, Gibby-Whachter and Johnson can more easily find kids to participate and request sponsorship to finance the program. Johnson will be acting as the school’s director of outreach programs during the summer.

A group of 12 boys will be selected for the first session of Building Bridges, June 25-July 1. The next session will focus on girls from the Salt Lake area, July 9-July 15, and in August, Johnson and Billington hope to involve Park City minority youth. The program is still working diligently to secure funding before they make final choices on the participants.

Billington hopes to take the Utah participants to the Virgin Islands in the next year to expose them to the area’s many water sports and the unique Caribbean culture.

Johnson and Billington also hope to find kids that already excell in other sports, so they can use their skills in many different areas.

"I started Building Bridges to get kids involved in other sports," Billington said. "They can bring other talents to these sports."

The UOP Adventure Camp is five days of all of the sports offered at the Park, two days at the Utah Olympic Oval for skating sports and a final day of fun on the Comet ride, zipline and Quicksilver.

The Building Bridges campers will be housed together in Jeremy Ranch for the duration of the week under the supervision of Billington, Johnson and Gibby-Whachter. Johnson is hopeful that the experience will help the kids build relationships as well as develop a desire to compete in winter sports. If the kids show a special interest or talent in one of the sports, she hopes to help them continue learning the sport so that, one day, they might pursue the sport competitively.

"One of the things that is important is not only for access, but the lack of kids of color being part of winter sports," Johnson said.

Building Bridges also has a winter session so the youth can try the same sports on snow and ice and then make decisions about their commitment level to trying a winter sports career.

"I’m hoping these kids will be excited about winter Olympic sports and be able to pursue and be skilled in competitive winter sports," Johnson said.

Building Bridges has also proven to be quite successful thus far. The first group that Billington brought over from the Virgin Islands in 2002 had several members continue on competing in skeleton long-term. Two girls compete on the World Cup circuit and two boys compete on other international circuits.

For more information on the program, visit http://www.viskeleton.com . To sponsor or contribute to the Building Bridges program, contact Billington at (813) 235-5857 or Reach Schools at (801) 815-1042.


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