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

Niños on skis

by ERIK DAENITZ

Twelve years ago the Rev. Bob Bussen, pastor of Saint Mary’s of the Assumption Parish in Park City, Utah, saw a divide in the community.

“I noticed that we had challenges in Park City embracing our diversity,” Bussen said. “I challenged the city that we needed to find ways to build bridges, noticing that I needed to do that as well.”

The result of Bussen’s challenge was the Niños on Skis program, which he envisioned as a way for Hispanic and non-Hispanic families and children to come together while having fun skiing.

The success of the program is due in part to the efforts of sponsor families who agree to ski with children who otherwise might not be able to enjoy the slopes of Park City.

In addition, Park City Mountain Resort, Aloha Ski and Snowboard Rental, and St. Mary’s provide equipment and services that make skiing free for children who participate.

Normally, a youth day ticket at the resort costs $50 while passes for Utah students between ages seven to 17 range from $175 to $225. However, the resort’s involvement with the Niños program lifts this burden.

“Park City Mountain Resort has just been fabulous because they give all our kids free passes and make it possible to do everything,” Bussen said. “Aloha we just kind of got to know and they got involved, too. St. Mary’s provides clothes through the St. Lawrence thrift store in Heber City.”

However, these opportunities did not always exist, and it has taken some effort to get the program where it is today.

“We live in this world-class resort and have many Hispanic families here,” said Ernest Oriente, the Niños on Skis program director. “Many of them were going back and forth to work or school every day looking up at these amazing mountains but never getting to experience them.”

Oriente became involved in the program 10 years ago after reading about it in a church bulletin. With Puerto Rican heritage on his mother’s side of his family, Oriente identifies with diversity and the need to extend opportunities to all.

“We must remember that we are a nation of immigrants,” Oriente said. “We are a melting pot of cultures.”

Starting out with eight children, the Niños program has consistently grown under Oriente’s direction. This year 51 boys and girls participated.

“Ernest and Father Bob collaborated on the program,” said Garrett Glenn, a Park City High School student who volunteers with the program. “Ernest is the director and does a lot of the work, and Father Bob is there to provide support.”

Niños on Skis enables children with minimal or no ski experience to eventually ski some of the most challenging terrain at the resort, such as runs off the Jupiter lift, which services black and double black diamond terrain.

“My favorite part of the mountain is King Con, but I’ve been up to Jupiter too,” said Martin Heredia, 9, who began learning to ski with the program two years ago.

The ability of new participants to rapidly improve their skills is due mainly to the structure of the program.

During the first three Saturdays of December, sponsor families pick up the children and bring them to the resort by 9 a.m. Half an hour later children are grouped based on skill level and experience with ski instructors who teach the children until noon.

After the free lessons, all of the children, instructors, and sponsor families converge at the bottom of the Payday lift and head to lunch at the resort center.

“It’s not unusual that lunch will run over $1,000,” Oriente said. “Lunch is paid for by St. Mary’s church and wonderful donations that are given to us by the community.”

When participants are filled up and warmed up, the sponsors take the children back out if they want to continue skiing into the afternoon.

“After the first three Saturdays it’s ski whenever you want and as much as you want with the children,” Oriente said. “The kids I have now, we’ve skied over 15 times with them already.”

Also, many times a boy or girl will be paired with a sponsor who is in middle school or high school, fostering new friendships.

Jessica Murphy, a 9th-grade student at Treasure Mountain International School, skis with Oladyd Angeles, a 2nd-grade student at Trailside Elementary School.

The two ski together throughout the season and Murphy further aids Angeles in learning better technique.

“I usually go in front and she follows,” Murphy said.

Angeles, who has lived in Park City her whole life, said she likes the mountains and that her favorite part of the program is getting to ski.

Another pair who ski together is the duo of high school student Garret Glenn and Martin Heredia, a 4th-grade student at McPolin Elementary School.

“I like the big jumps,” said Heredia, when discussing his favorite part of skiing. “But I’ve made friends, too.”

When skiing together, Glenn said he prefers to let Heredia lead as he watches from behind to make sure Heredia is OK.

“It’s a good program,” Glenn said. “I like to be able to ski with him and help him out, help him get a little more practice and experience.”

Although he is only 9, Heredia already has a plan for his skiing future.

“When I am older I will teach other people to ski, too,” he said.

These examples of service and friendship illustrate that the program is about much more than just skiing.

“In my opinion this program has gone on to become the most interconnected relationship between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic community that exists in Park City,” Oriente said. “This is more than a cursory event. This can be a 12-month relationship, an ongoing relationship that takes many shapes and forms.”

While the Niños program fosters these connections, St. Mary’s is behind other efforts to improve integration.

“We have Spanish masses, but we also have a bilingual mass that we do during Lent and Holy Week,” Bussen said.

He also said he has seen improvements in the school systems, healthcare services and with other programs such as the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, the Boy’s and Girl’s Club and the tennis program that St. Mary’s helps run.

In fact, the children who participate in Niños on Skis can segue straight into St. Mary’s tennis program, Oriente said. It provides another opportunity for interaction and learning by allowing boys and girls to transfer from a winter sport to a summer sport.

It seems that the divide that once existed in Park City is being joined.

“You keep making steps, you keep making strides,” Oriente said. ” I don’t know about the rest of Utah, but I know that in my own world in Park City we care. In the Niños program we can’t touch 10,000 lives, but I know we can touch the lives of 51 children, and that for me means a lot. I know that in some small way we are making a contribution.”