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


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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 leaders advocate for more diverse leadership in the future

Story and photos by CHRIS SAMUELS

Kyle Reyes, chief diversity officer for Utah Valley University, said he wished that members of the Utah State Legislature — standing on the steps behind him — could be as diverse as the collection of several hundred middle school and junior high students gathered in front of him.

Kyle Reyes speaks to gathered students at Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

Kyle Reyes speaks to gathered students at Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have our legislature reflect the diversity here,” Reyes said. “Our teachers that are in our schools reflect the diversity here in the state, so I think there is always work to be done. I think we can do a lot more, frankly.”

Reyes and other state and education leaders met Feb. 16, 2016, at the Utah State Capitol to speak to about 300 students for Multicultural Youth Leadership Day. In addition to Reyes, other speakers included Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and state legislators. A local spoken word group, Truth Cypher, gave a performance, as did a youth step troupe from the True Vine Baptist Church.

Speaking to the gathered youth, Gov. Herbert supported his state for having a long history of diversity and inclusion.

“Our early settlers came from western Europe whether they were Scandinavians, or English people, or Germans, others from Western Europe,” Herbert said. “That diversity is making us even stronger and more successful, particularly in the world’s economy of today, because we have so many different cultures and speak so many different languages in Utah. … We really speak the world’s languages, and that gives us some opportunity for economic growth as we go forward.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks to assembled youth at Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks to assembled youth at Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

Claudia Nakano, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, shared Gov. Herbert’s statement, and added that the state continues to be diverse.

“The U.S. Census is predicting by the year 2043, this nation will be a majority-minority nation, and in Ogden and in West Valley, they are already majority-minority cities here in Utah,” Nakano said. “One out of four preschoolers is ethnic and comes from an ethnic background. We’re hoping to inspire leadership, getting involved in your community, civic engagement, and take those seats up here on the hill and pass legislation.”

Youth came from as far as Ogden and Payson to attend the summit. Students listened to the program for about an hour and 20 minutes, which was followed by lunch and tours of the Capitol.

Students from across the state listen to speakers at Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

Students from across the state listen to speakers at the leadership day, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

The day at the Capitol is part of a greater initiative by the Office of Multicultural Affairs to involve diverse youth from around the state to become more involved civically. The office also organizes and holds a Multicultural Youth Summit every October, which hosted 2,000 students in October of 2015. The aim of the state-run department is to aid the state in making better outreach efforts to promote civic engagement and cultural diversity in government across the state. The summit is part of these efforts.

The summit, Nakano said, was designed in part by Gov. Herbert’s “66 by 2020” initiative. The project, according to the governor’s website, sets the bar of having 66 percent of Utah’s working-age population with a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020.

“We want to help raise that graduation rate, and now with our changing demographic, we are becoming more diverse, not only in Utah but across the nation,” Nakano said.

Not all sentiments are positive on Utah’s outlook. Nakano conceded that the current makeup of state legislators needs to be more ethnically diverse, which would help support more diversity initiatives and better legislation on equality. Although no statistics are available on the ethnic makeup of the current legislative body, the vast majority are white male.

Kyle Reyes, UVU’s chief diversity officer, echoed these feelings, adding that higher education administrators from around the state are collaborating on diversity reform. But, he said state legislation still needs to be impacted.

“When I talk to people about multiculturalism, I like to say it’s not just another thing we do. It’s how we do business, it’s a lens that we wear,” Reyes said. “And if we can get more people, especially more people in powerful positions to wear those lenses and be a little more sensitive and be more culturally responsible, I think that will go a long way.”

Youth from the True Vine Baptist Church perform at Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

Youth from the True Vine Baptist Church perform at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.

In the coming years, the Office of Multicultural Affairs will plan additional youth leadership summits and events across the state. Nakano said a smaller summit in addition to the large one in October 2015 was held in Ogden, which hosted 300 children. Smaller summits are anticipated in other cities in Utah, such as St. George, Cedar City and Vernal. The 2016 legislative session added an additional $30,000 in funding for the summit.


Raising awareness helps reduce the number of homeless LGBT youth

Story and photo by RACHEL JACKSON

Awareness is the first step toward acceptance.

One of the most important ways to help homeless youth of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is through awareness and this is one of the top priorities among LGBT centers in Salt Lake City.

The Utah Pride Center has a youth activities program called TINT (Tolerant Intelligent Network of Teens), which is a vital part of the center. It provides a safe haven for youth ages 14 to 20 — regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

The TINT center

The TINT center is part of the Utah Pride Center and is located in the Marmalade district of downtown Salt Lake City.

“We see a high level of family rejection at TINT, if they were accepted it wouldn’t be such a big issue,” said Danielle Watters, director of community support and wellness services at the Utah Pride Center.

Youth can stop in to chat with the volunteers or fellow young people during the designated drop-in times. The open times are typically from 2 to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays.

The TINT program stresses that it is not just a gay group for youth — the main goal is to give kids a safe place to hang out.

Along with a pool table, a library and video games, TINT offers support groups for youth who are in need of someone who will just listen.

“A physical place where youth can feel safe is really important,” Watters said. “It can be scary for them [to be homeless]. They need a place where they can access basic needs.”

Jaaycob Okumura sought help two years ago from TINT when he was coming out as gay.

“The TINT [center] has helped me by giving me a safe space to grow and learn who I am,” Okumura said in an email. He is now the coordinator for the Queer and Straight Alliance at the Utah Pride Center.

Watters said a young member of the LGBT community can become homeless in several different ways. Family rejection is the most prevalent type; the next most common form is when LGBT students move here for various reasons and have nowhere else to turn after their funds fall short.

Social acceptance also plays a big role in homelessness. Watters said some youth are fired from their jobs because they are LGBT. Then they have trouble getting a new one.

The TINT center also has a program that allows homeless or non-homeless youth to always have a place to eat. According to its website, the center’s motto is, “If the TINT is open, soup’s on!”

Soup isn’t the only thing the TINT center dishes up. The program serves an educational meeting every Saturday to educate LGBT youth on HIV.

The program is called Rise! and its goal is to end HIV in the community. It has a commitment to inspire queer youth to make a change, with the idea in mind that HIV impacts everyone. According to the Rise! website, it takes an effort from all to make the ending of HIV a reality.

It takes a “responsibility of educated community members,” said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah. “That’s how we build a better community.”

Equality Utah continues to work on implementing laws and informing Utahns in order to reach a point where LGBT members are recognized as a part of the community.

“It’s a top priority to gain visibility and awareness,” Balken said. Equality Utah strives for change and bringing to light the problem of having unequal policy.

Equality Utah has a petition on its website that people can sign. The petition will abolish the law that protects employers from firing a person for being LGBT or being uncomfortable with an employee’s sexual orientation.

According to the Equality Utah website, the No. 1 issue for the LGBT community is “securing measures that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in employment, housing, public accommodation, education and extension of credit.”

Equality Utah and the Pride Center are both striving for LGBT equal rights and fair treatment for all people.

Another non-discriminative resource for youth is the Homeless Youth Resource Center in Salt Lake City. It is run by the Volunteers of America organization. The center, located at 655 S. State St., also has a drop-in time when youth can stop in for basic needs such as showering and doing laundry.

Last year, 1,047 youth were helped through the programs offered there. The programs include street outreach, drop-in center and a transition home.

Through all of these different resources, youth have a chance to feel safe, know they are not alone and talk to someone who has experience.

“Though I have never been a homeless youth, [TINT] has still been a safe haven for me whenever I have needed it,” Okumura said in an email. “[And it] has given me the opportunity to learn life skills.”

Capitol West Boys and Girls Club helps kids with life skills in a safe environment

Story and photo by MELANIE HOLBROOK

Boys and Girls Club at Capitol West

The Capitol West Boys and Girls Club helps boys and girls in its community become productive and caring citizens in a fun and easy-going atmosphere. Located in Rose Park, youth of all ages are invited to spend their time doing various activities so that they can feel in a safe place.

According to the club’s website, the mission of the Boys and Girls Club is “to inspire and enable the youth in communities, especially those who need it most, to become caring and responsible individuals through guidance-oriented adult relationships and engagement in a variety of enriching activities within a safe environment.”

At the Capitol West Club, located at 567 W. 300 North, Teen Center Director Jessica Hill organizes activities, supervises staff and helps out with recreational games. Activities such as basketball tournaments or billiards are held at the club.

“We go on a lot of field trips too; we’ve gone river rafting. I’ve taken them camping and bowling up at the University of Utah,” Hill said.

Hill explained a lot of their programs are based off of drug prevention. A big goal of the club is educating teens on life skills and how to make the right decision in certain situations.

One of the strongest assets the Boys and Girls Club provides is its formula for impact, which consists of Five Core Program Areas.

Hill said those five areas are character and leadership development, education and career development, health and life skills, sports and the arts. These areas are offered to meet the needs of all types of kids who come in and out of the club. These areas can help kids reach their full potential.

“We really just want to focus on healthy lifestyles and academic success. We obviously want them to become educated so that they can have a good lifestyle and good future and contribute to society,” Hill said.

Although the boys and girls are learning things such as life skills and receiving help with academics, it isn’t a school. “We’re making learning a fun thing to do. We want them to come here because they’re having fun,” she said.

Hill said the club is extremely diverse in ethnicity and age; 50 percent of the club is made up of teens (ages 12-18) while the other 50 percent is made up of children younger than age 12. “We’re located in a very tight-knit community, so we have a lot of African refugees, along with a lot of Hispanic kids, a lot of Polynesian kids; pretty much kids from all of the world,” Hill said.

Javier Argueta is 13 years old and has been coming to the Capitol West Club since he was 6 years old. Argueta said he first went because he didn’t have much to do after school and heard about it from his friends in his class. He decided to stay at the club because he loved the people.

“I like the staff because they always talk to me if I ever have problems. This is my second house because I’m always here,” Argueta said.

He said he’s learned a lot at the club over the years. “I’ve learned to be nice to people and to encourage myself.”

Kids such as Javier Argueta became members after hanging around the club for a few days. Hill explained that by offering membership to kids they can feel a sense of belonging, something anyone wants in life. Membership entails simply having the child’s name documented and knowing a familiar face.

Hill explained at the club kids and staff have been able to make close relationships with one another, creating a high level of trust. Kids know they can confide in staff; people are there to help them out with anything, whether it be homework or emotional stress.

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