Ski programs molding better lives for those living in Salt Lake City’s west-side communities

Story by MARTIN KUPRIANOWICZ

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Children living on the west side of Salt Lake City enjoying the snow and cross-country skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

It’s Saturday. The sun is shining and snow is on the ground. Parents are dropping their children off at Mountainview Elementary in Salt Lake City and the kids are already exploding with excitement — they are going on a field trip. Juan Gilberto Rejón — or “Coach Juan,” as those in west-side communities refer to him — is patiently waiting outside of the school to take roughly 50 elementary students to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to view a population of wild eagles on this day.

Coach Juan is the founder, executive director, and coach for the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families, which is a program that aims to create pathways to college for the underserved by getting students involved in the outdoors. Coach Juan started this program because he believes the experiences earned in the outdoors are valuable ones that can set children up to better handle adversity throughout their lives.

On weekends throughout the school year, Coach Juan often takes students on excursions to participate in a wide variety of outdoor activities, from bird watching to skiing. Recently, cross-country skiing has been a big emphasis of the program.

“It’s a blessing for our underserved and our underprivileged because they wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. It’s too expensive,” Coach Juan said. “For a family of five or six to go skiing at $200 a pop, that’s already over $1,000 being spent for just a day of skiing. There’s just no way these families living in poverty could afford that.”

His ski program is partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance that takes students cross-country skiing on weekends in the winter. Another partner is She Jumps, an organization that motivates women and girls of all backgrounds to step out of their comfort zone in a fun, non-threatening, inclusive environment to learn outdoor skills.

Coach Juan’s program has been operating for three years, but his inspiration to get students involved with the outdoors goes back almost two decades to the birth of his son.

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Coach Juan pictured outside of Mountainview Elementary, the meeting place for students going to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo by Martin Kuprianowicz

“When I first moved into a 300-bedroom apartment complex here (on the west side) there were a lot of things happening that were not safe for kids. We had a lot of robberies, carjackings, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, so as a community advocate I had to do something for my child,” Coach Juan said.

What began as a mission to improve the quality of life for his child then translated as improving the lives of everyone in his community, especially vulnerable children on the west side of Salt Lake City. Coach Juan started a community soccer program that would eventually grow into a multifaceted, multi-partnered community outdoor program for youth.

The program focuses on helping students to pursue higher education. Coach Juan’s son went through it. Now, his grandchildren are enrolled. Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families has since grown and is now partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance, headed by former two-time Olympic ski racer Peter Vordenberg.

Vordenberg coaches ski racers who have won gold medals in the Winter Olympics and World Cup championships. In addition, he helps Coach Juan organize the single-day cross-country ski trips by providing students with everything they need to go skiing.

But he didn’t always plan to be a community advocate. It all started by chance one day when he was invited by a friend to tag along with the kids on one of these ski programs.

“I was out there hanging out with all the kids and with Coach Juan and I was like, ‘Oh man, I got to be more involved, not just take pictures but I got to see what I can do to help out.’ So, I joined the board,” Vordenberg said.

Vordenberg has been on the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families board for three years. He says that his favorite thing about being involved with the program is watching the kids develop a love for skiing and the outdoors. “It really builds their confidence and helps them dream bigger,” Vordenberg said.

Another opportunity for the west-side youth is the Parks and Recreation program that is affiliated with world-class ski areas Brighton and Snowbird. The Northwest Recreation Center is one of many centers throughout the Salt Lake Valley  that shuttle elementary and middle school students to those ski areas and provide them with gear, lift passes, and instructor training.

Snowbird Mountain School Director Maggie Loring has run this program on Fridays in the winter for 18 seasons. She said programmatic goals include developing new skiers and riders who may be interested in one day working as staff at the resorts, and providing a community service to children who may not otherwise get the opportunity to enjoy winter sports.

“One anecdote I can share is that the current manager of our programs was initially in our 4th-grade program, became a junior instructor, and kept going. It’s really an opportunity for resorts to capture both new guests and new staff,” Loring said in an email interview.

However, the impact of these programs is also a lot simpler than getting kids involved with the outdoors and setting them up for potential life paths in the ski industry.

“One of my favorite things about this program is the opportunity to see the kids pour out of the buses so excited to get onto the mountain,” Loring said. “Many of them may not be able to sleep the night before because of how excited they are for this new adventure. I remember from my own childhood how excited I was to get out of school to go skiing!”

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It’s nothing but smiles when the kids get off the bus and go skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

Getting Dirty: Why children need to be outdoors

Story and photos by KATIE HARRINGTON

A semi-weathered copy of Thoreau’s “Walden is perched on the top shelf of an IKEA bookcase in Nick Harrison’s bedroom, next to a collection of guidebooks, a stack of old climbing magazines and a French pocketknife — the handle made from the trunk of a cork tree. Harrison’s name is engraved on the blade.

A large, unfinished painting of southern Utah’s Castleton Tower is nestled into the corner of the room, near a box of paintbrushes and a piece of notebook paper with the title “2012 TO DO LIST” written across the top:

Keep a clear mind. Visit a different continent. Finish Castleton painting. Push my physical limits. Change someone’s life for the better.

Harrison, a 20-year-old student and a “liftie” at Alta Ski Area, grew up with the Wasatch Mountains in his backyard, inspired by their mystifying allure.

“I am drawn to the outdoors,” Harrison said. “These mountains are my constant source of motivation. I draw them. I climb them. But I didn’t fully appreciate what they had to offer until I got older. Survival, self-reliance, serenity: these are all things you can only truly learn by getting outside.”

But kids today don’t seem to see the outdoors the same way Harrison does.

Crowson (left) and Harrison pack their car for a climbing trip in April.

According to a national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages eight to 18 spend an average of 7.3 hours engaging in entertainment media in a typical day. This amounts to more than 53 hours per week.

Be Out There — a National Wildlife Federation campaign that hopes to reconnect children to the natural world — notes that a study in 2005 revealed that children are spending half as much time outdoors than they did 20 years ago.

Neil Crowson — Harrison’s roommate and adventurer counterpart — grew up down the street from Harrison, spending his childhood skiing in the Wasatch Mountains and rock climbing with his father.

“It’s really important for a kid to go out and get himself in the dirt, jump off rocks and cut his knees up, and get on the mountain at a young age,” Crowson said. “If kids do that, then they come to develop ambitions and learn to respect the mountains.”

Both Harrison and Crowson say they have — in one way or another — been defined by their outdoor surroundings, that growing up with the mountains as their playground has given them a sense of place and purpose in a seemingly uncertain world.

The walls of their living room are covered from ceiling to floor with personal photographs that share a common theme: being outside.

The gear room in the basement of their bungalow-style house is crammed with racks of ropes, climbing gear, bikes, skis, backpacks, tents and camp stoves—and a looming odor that can only be created from years of adventuring outdoors.

“I can’t ever see myself leaving the Wasatch completely,” Crowson said. “The people that founded these canyons, both in skiing and in climbing, have also founded tons of areas around the west coast. But you always see them coming back to Salt Lake and that’s because we hold the mountains with such high regard. They define us.”

But that defining power of the mountains — of the outdoors in general — is becoming increasingly sparse among today’s youth, as an increasingly technology-fueled lifestyle drives kids indoors — and keeps them there.

“It’s hard to learn a key set of morals as a kid when the world is changing so rapidly and technology is always advancing,” Crowson said. “It’s always hard to know how to become a man. But the beautiful thing about the outdoors is that it’s a constant. It’s timeless. So the same set of values that existed 100 years ago still exists today.”

Outdoor Nation — a community-based program created by young people, for young people — was founded in 2010 to address the growing disconnect between today’s youth and the outdoors.

“America is in a current state of crisis where its youth are choosing technology over nature, Xboxes (check the proper spelling on X box) over healthy lifestyles,” Outdoor Nation said on its website. “Green spaces in urban areas are either unsafe or non-existent. Families, schools, and media have failed to engage and excite youth about the benefits of the outdoors.”

Judy Brady, a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City, said being outdoors is especially important for a child’s development because it fosters self-esteem.

“One of the ways in which we gain self-esteem is through task mastery,” Brady said. “When a child is outside, he or she gains personal self worth by problem solving, by completing new and challenging tasks.”

A series of studies published in a 2009 edition of Journal of Environmental Psychology found that being outside in nature makes people feel more alive.

“In vital states people demonstrate better coping and report greater health and wellness,” the study reported. “Being outdoors has been proposed to be good for health and well-being because when outdoors, people tend to both interact more with others and get more exercise.”

The sunlight also triggers serotonin and dopamine production, neurotransmitters that help maintain positive feelings in the brain, Brady said. Cases of seasonal depression are seen more often in the winter months because there is less sunlight and people spend less time outdoors.

“When we are surrounded by all man-made objects and man-made ideas — products of our own society — we become dysfunctional,” Crowson said. “We forget how to respond. We are alienated from each other because we are constantly around each other. When you are in the outdoors and there’s nothing but organic sounds, it gives you a chance to really bond with other humans.”

Allison Librett — a lawyer and fitness instructor in Salt Lake City — said that exposing her children to the outdoors at a young age has helped them establish and maintain relationships.

Librett has a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old, both of whom spend their summers at outdoor camps with children of diverse abilities and backgrounds.

“Fresh air, exercise, mental stimulation — these are all such important things for child’s development,” Librett said. “My kids have had the opportunity growing up to interact with the world around them, to know what their imprint is and that they have a purpose.”

Librett said that when her children spend long periods indoors — especially when they are on the computer or playing video games — she notices that they are much more anxious, emotional and frustrated.

Those emotions disappear when her children are engaged in outdoor activities.

Harrison said he hopes that today’s youth will realize what adventuring outdoors has to offer.

“Kids should be excited to get out, to be outside, to breathe fresh air, to see a full moon and a bunch of stars, and hear the coyotes,” Harrison said. “That’s the sickest thing to me: just hearing and seeing and feeling the world as it is. ”

And if Harrison’s convictions about the benefits of nature aren’t heartfelt and persuasive enough, then perhaps a passage marked in his copy of “Walden” is:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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