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

Utah Dream Center proves helping goes a long way

Story and slideshow by MELANIE HOLBROOK

Explore the Utah Dream Center

“Our dream is to see you live yours.” That is the slogan of the nonprofit organization Utah Dream Center, which was created to help community members fulfill their dreams.

Whether starting an arts program or a private elementary school, the organization located at 1624 S. 1000 West helps people get started so that more individuals can be assisted in the long run.

In 1998 husband and wife Alfred and Anna Murillo traveled to Los Angeles for a short-term mission project. Already involved with servicing their community, the Murillos brought with them 40 boys and girls to help out at one of the Los Angeles Dream Center’s programs.

Amazed by that center’s goals and projects, such as its after-school programs that provided activities for kids, the Murillos became inspired and knew Salt Lake City needed its own Dream Center.

In January 2000, Alfred and Anna launched the Utah Dream Center, modeled after the one in Los Angeles. With no help yet, the Murillos traveled throughout the U.S. in search of ideas and help from anyone interested.

With creativity and a U-Haul, the Murillos began to follow their dreams in June 2001. With the back of the U-Haul used as their stage they pursued after-school programs for any Glendale-area neighborhood kids who were interested in participating. Starting off simple, boys and girls could come hang out at the U-Haul after school for food and games.

With that, word spread fast. In February 2002 their U-Haul had become their very own facility that they still use today.

With their name already in the public, the Utah Dream Center was able to serve more than 400 kids in the first year.

“People had heard about what we were doing and wanted to get involved. People want to help out and contribute to making something of their community,” Alfred said in a telephone interview.

Over the years the Utah Dream Center has added at least 200 volunteers to their family. Alfred explained that there isn’t a payroll; the organization functions off the work of volunteers.

The Utah Dream Center stays running and thriving through its donors, volunteers and other sources that want to be a part of it. Out-of-state churches and businesses that have heard of the organization will send in donations.

Alfred explained that they’ve never purposely been in the news. The organization doesn’t believe in soliciting or asking people for contributions; people hear about the organization and want to donate.

“We work on helping kids around us, we’re not trying to make a big uproar,” he said.

“The other day I was getting my oil changed and during those 15 minutes we (the employee and I) started talking about what I do. He didn’t charge me for my oil change and handed me $250 because he wanted to help,” Alfred said.

He said it’s the goodness in people and their mentality that keeps their organization going.

Donations to the organization are given in various ways. Alfred said when he took his daughter to the dentist he again got to talking about his work. After listening, his dentist told him to bring kids in and he will work for free. Over the past eight years Alfred has taken in three kids while his dentist has put in thousands of dollars of service just so he can help others.

“Our dream is to see your fulfill your dream. We’re not asking you to make ours. When you help people it spreads a mentality, you want to help people when you’ve been helped,” he said.

Utah Dream Center has four programs in the Glendale area. Those programs are the Arts Academy, Open Door, Provisions for the Ministry and Mobile Medical. A director who came to the Murillos with his or her idea started each program. After discussion of their idea, the Murillos helped them get it started.

“The Open Door is held every Monday night. We’ll have chunks of different segments; half an hour for free time, time for reading and tutoring. We feed them a healthy dinner,” Susanna Metzger said in a telephone interview.

Metzger, the director of the Open Door after-school program, said on average 40 kids come every Monday.

The Arts Academy lets kids engage in music such as piano, drums and singing. The program also incorporates painting and drawing.

“My daughter has been going to Arts Academy for two years now. She’s 8 years old and is so bright — I thank the program,” Gabriela Hardy said.

“Hobbies such as piano or painting can make a child so much more well-rounded and determined to learn and grow at a young age. It shapes them,” she said.

The program Provisions for the Ministries delivers food and donates clothing to various churches every Wednesday.

Mobile Medical is stationed in the U-Haul the Murillos used back in 2001. This program was established to help community members who can’t afford certain medical help. Having it in the U-Haul makes it easier to serve more people.

Hardy isn’t one of the only fans of the organization. Richard Williams, a donor to the organization, said his son isn’t old enough for any of the programs but wants to get him in them when he’s ready.

“I found out about Utah Dream Center through my brother and donated soon after. An organization that helps people succeed in things they want to do, why wouldn’t I want to support something so great?” Williams said.

But community members aren’t the only people who have heard about the organization and want to help out.

Kyle Korver, a former player for the Utah Jazz, became involved with the organization. Korver would give Alfred 30 tickets to every Jazz game for any boys and girls who wanted to attend.

Real Salt Lake presented Alfred and his wife with the “Heroes Among Us” honor at a sold-out game. In the middle of the field, the Murillos were given jerseys with their names on them.

Alfred said one of the greatest honors was when “Good Things Utah” surprised him and his wife with a big metal key that would unlock the door to their new office. Utah Dream Center will be on “Extreme Home Makeover” where the organization will be given an entirely brand-new office; the episode is set to air in summer 2012.

The Utah Dream Center has expanded to help those suffering with problems such as gangs and drugs. There are now locations in Ogden, Provo and Kearns.

“You never know where helping people can take you,” Alfred said.