Through the power of outdoor recreation, SOS Outreach helps at-risk youth find their footing.
Three winters ago, as Elizabeth Alvarado stood atop a bunny hill at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and strapped into a snowboard for the first time, she felt hopelessly lost.
Part of it was her surroundings. Though the famous Colorado ski area was only a short drive up I-70 from her home in Denver, this was new territory for Alvarado, who had never glided down the snowy slopes that her state was so famous for.
But mostly it was emotional disorientation. At 15, Alvarado had no idea what the future held. She figured she would drift through high school until inevitably dropping out, just like everyone in her family had done before. After that, who knew?
"I was going through a lot at that time," says Alvarado, now 18 and living in the Denver suburb of Northglenn. "I didn't really know what I was going to do with my life, who I was going to be."
But this trip to the mountains—part of a "learn to ride" event sponsored by Edwards, Colorado-based nonprofit SOS Outreach—offered the promise of a fresh start. Alvarado was terrified to snowboard, but also determined to try.
With nothing to lose, she pointed her board downhill.
Two decades earlier, in 1993, Arn Menconi formed SOS "to improve the negative societal perception of the snowboard culture," according to the organization's website. SOS Outreach now focuses on connecting at-risk and underserved youth with the outdoors—through snow sports in the winter and hiking, camping, and backpacking in the summer—while also teaching long-term life skills development to promote future success.
Visitors from across the globe pack Colorado's ski resorts each winter, but many local children and teens never get to explore them, says SOS Outreach Executive Director Seth Ehrlich. "There were a number of kids in mountain communities who hadn't ever had access to snow sports, and this vehicle of outdoor recreation, particularly skiing and snowboarding, provides an ideal platform for youth development," he says.
“They have all these obstacles they have to overcome, let alone finishing school and other things that people like myself take for granted."
The organization increases exposure to and reduces the expense of snow sports, the two biggest roadblocks for underprivileged and at-risk youth. Corporate partners donate gear, clothing, lift tickets, and instruction, while SOS staff and volunteers coordinate program days, provide a value-based curriculum, and serve as year-round mentors for participants. Youth agencies and schools recruit the participants and provide transportation to the resorts.
But SOS Outreach is about more than simply teaching kids how to ride. The organization has three goals for each youth it welcomes into its programs and mentorships: 1) Build confidence in their personal lives; 2) Help them develop a career path, whether that involves finishing high school, entering the military, or going to college; 3) Instill a passion for outdoor recreation that will last a lifetime.
"Success for us is to identify kids who are not on pace to graduate high school, put them on that pace through a prevention program, and then create this community around them that helps them achieve the goals that they've set for themselves," Ehrlich says.
That mission inspired Jamie Rogers of Arvada to become an SOS mentor. A Texas native who moved to Colorado eight years ago, Rogers says that after leaving behind what he calls his "shady past" and finding sobriety, he sought meaning in life bigger than himself. With SOS, he could combine his love of outdoor activities and his desire to help troubled teens.
"How in God's name can these kids have a chance when they start out with a crappy deck?" says Rogers, who has now been volunteering with SOS for five years. "They have all these obstacles they have to overcome, let alone finishing school and other things that people like myself take for granted. If they can't get support from someone else, I'm going to be that. It makes you feel like you have a purpose in life to give back and help people."
SOS Outreach has raised millions of dollars in cash and in-kind donations from companies that help it reach more than 4,000 at-risk youth annually through a variety of programs. The organization operates at 31 resorts in Colorado, California, Utah, Washington, and now Michigan, with its newest program at Mt. Brighton outside of Detroit.
Exposing more kids to skiing and snowboarding is needed in the snow sports industry, which has seen plateauing participation in recent years, according to SnowSports Industries America. The number of downhill ski participants (alpine and freestyle) declined 1 percent to 11.6 million, and the number of snowboard participants declined 1 percent to 7.6 million in 2015-16, according to SIA's most recent data.
“We believe that kids who have access to nature are more active, and might become stewards for the outdoors."
By introducing snow sports to youth who wouldn't have otherwise had access to them, those numbers could improve slightly, although that's not the primary purpose of SOS Outreach or its biggest corporate partner, Vail Resorts.
"We partner with SOS because they have created programming to teach important life skills while instilling a passion for the outdoors. That is a win-win," says Nicky DeFord, senior manager of charitable contributions at Vail Resorts. "We believe that kids who have access to nature are more active, and might become stewards for the outdoors. SOS Outreach has found a way to do this with kids across demographics in every community where we operate."
The programs are working. According to the organization's impact data, almost all SOS participants (96.7 percent) "believe it is important to stay in school," while almost as many (93.9 percent) intend to go to college. At the same time, SOS is teaching more youths to ski, snowboard, rock climb, backpack, hike, and stand-up paddleboard.
"It's cool using sports that are not inherent and have not been experienced by the kids," Ehrlich says. "This is an opportunity for the kids to develop something they can do for the rest of their lives."
Three years ago, on that winter day at A-Basin, Alvarado became a snowboarder. She fell a lot, like all beginners, though before long she graduated to steeper slopes, then other ski resorts, then hike-to-terrain like St. Mary's Glacier, where she had to earn her turns. But she was hooked from that initial descent.
"It was definitely something I liked doing immediately because I'm more of a 'challenge me, let me see how far I can get even if I get frustrated' person," Alvarado says. "And I picked it up quickly, faster than most of the boys in the group."
Her passion for the sport is apparent in the way it makes her feel both on and off the mountain. With each chance she got to ride, Alvarado gained more confidence, not only in snowboarding but in life. "SOS pointed me in the direction I wanted to be in, instead of the direction I thought I was going to be in," she says.
“I grew up too fast, and SOS has taught me that even though you’re an adult, you can still be a kid."
Alvarado carved a new path for herself. She will become the first person in her family to graduate high school and will attend Denver's Metropolitan State University in the fall. After that, she plans to become a veterinarian—something "I didn't think was possible a few years ago," Alvarado says.
Her mentor, Rogers, has seen her flourish, both as a snowboarder and a person, and he marvels at the transformation. He says Alvarado was standoffish when he first met her, but now she loves hugs and regularly volunteers to speak about SOS Outreach at industry events like the SIA Snow Show.
Learning to snowboard was life-changing, says Alvarado, who found her own line in a world where she once felt so lost.
"When I'm in the mountains, that's the time I don't worry about school, I don't worry about family. I can just be a kid," she says. "I grew up too fast, and SOS has taught me that even though you're an adult, you can still be a kid. The time that you're snowboarding, you have nothing to worry about except if you're going to crash—other than that, you can be yourself.
"I'm definitely going to continue snowboarding for as long as I can. It's a big chapter in your life to find something that you're passionate about."
To learn more about SOS Outreach, including volunteer opportunities, visit sosoutreach.org.