Tom Kelly: Life lessons through sport
Two snowboarders and a skier fist bumped on the King Con chairlift after a great run. It was a busy Saturday at the resort but the trio was happy to be back together on snow again.
It was a day of riding, arcing turns down Liberty and flinging off the lip of Sundog in McConkeys. More than the riding, though, it was about camaraderie and friendship.
I had just met Bryan, 16, and Alexis, 18, along with their mentor, Alex, a dental student at the University of Utah. As I rode up the chairlift with my three new friends, I was reminded of the opportunity we have in our community and the important playground we enjoy at our resorts.
Alexis, a Park City High School senior, might not have had the opportunity to enjoy the sport had it not been for the Youth Sports Alliance’s Get Out and Play program. Bryan was just six when he had a chance to try skiing with the Niños on Skis program pioneered by then St. Mary’s Catholic Church pastor Father Bob Bussen. Both are also students in the innovative Bright Futures high school program for first-generation college candidates. Alex, a former National Ability Center volunteer, met the two when he signed on as a mentor with SOS Outreach to help a friend who ran the new program.
Our day began a few hours earlier, gathered in a small room deep in the underground of Park City Mountain. Nearly a hundred kids and mentors were gathered, anxious for a day of fun and education. It was Industry Day, a partnership between SOS Outreach and Park City Mountain to teach kids about job opportunities and finding a career path.
Kids of all ages had a look of excitement on their faces. The young ones were about to head out to have fun in a new sport, some for the first time. The high school kids would travel from station to station around the mountain, learning what goes on behind the scenes at the resort.
Volunteer Ernest Oriente stood in front of the group like an orchestra conductor, capturing the attention of the kids and engaging them to pay attention.
It was 22 years ago – 1998 – when Father Bob sought to bring Hispanic youth to the ski slopes through a new program, Niños on Skis. Oriente was his right hand man, a pied piper for the Hispanic community. And they put kids on skis! Today, Park City Mountain continues to support kids, now bridging it to the SOS Outreach program, which came to town in 2016.
“I was just six years old when I got involved with Niños,” said Bryan. “Especially living here – this is Park City – everybody here should be able to ski.
“I feel blessed to grow up in an area surrounded by mountains,” chimed in Alexis. “In school they talked about how awesome it was to ski. I felt left out. I was interested in getting involved and now snowboarding is my favorite hobby.”
The late 90s was a time when Park City needed a program like Niños on Skis to help our rapidly growing Hispanic community. About that same time, I got to know another program in Colorado called SOS Outreach, reaching out to underserved kids with sport as a life tool. What I most liked about that program is that it was not just about sport. It was about using sport as a conduit to talk about life – especially life values.
In just four years here in Park City, SOS Outreach has provided ski or snowboard opportunities for over 1,100 youth. This year it will bring 400 more youth to snow, plus facilitating youth community service and leadership workshops.
As the day began, the kids learned about ski school and what it takes to become an instructor. Justin talked about his own lifelong passion for teaching others to ski. Then it was on to Legacy Lodge where Ted and Janelle spoke about careers in retail sales.
Anxious to get on snow, the boys clicked into their boards and slid down to First Time for their next station where Jessie talked about pass scanning while Darren spoke on the operations of ski lifts. Jessie spoke about her motivation to leave a legal job to move into something that took her outdoors.
Along the sidelines watching the group was Rebeca Gonzalez. When she was six, she got her start in Niños. Her older sister was in the first class 22 years ago. Today, she’s a college graduate and oversees Bright Futures. She reminisced about her mentors from years earlier. Not only did they get her on skis, but they helped her get through college – a lifetime of connectivity that started on snow.
Reflecting back on the day, I kept coming back to SOS Outreach coordinator Abbey Eddy’s talk about values. Each month the program day is dedicated to one of SOS Outreach’s six values.
“Last month’s value was courage,” she said. With a sweatshirt in hand, she told the story of Emma, who had the courage to conquer her own fears, skiing a run that had been challenging for her. Emma’s eyes got bit as Abbey presented the sweatshirt to her.
Most of us measure our ski days by vertical feet, number of runs or max speed. That Saturday, I learned there’s a lot more to it for these kids. It’s about values and friendships, and just being up on the mountain with a buddy.
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 50th season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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Columnist Tom Clyde writes that other states forcing people who’ve been in Utah to quarantine could complicate ski season: “Come and enjoy a long holiday weekend in Utah, and, as an added bonus, you get to take an additional two weeks off work.”