Emmanuel Hernandez first learned to ski on a snow-covered hill in his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming, when he was not yet 3 years old. His mother, Nancy Hernandez, who first came to the U.S. in 1999 from Tlaxcala, Mexico, taught him. Nancy had taught herself to ski as an adult at Copper Mountain, Colorado, where she was employed on a seasonal work visa.
At Copper, Nancy was introduced to snowsports by fellow resort workers on visas from Argentina, who lent her some snow blades, pointed her toward the beginner slope, then left her to figure it out on her own. “I loved it,” said Nancy. “I knew how to roller skate and ice skate, so I managed to learn to ski myself. It’s always good to have someone encourage you to try something different.” Nancy eventually moved to Wyoming to raise her family surrounded by a larger community also from Tlaxcala.
It’s been years since then. Now 16, Emmanuel is on his high school football and wrestling teams. He plays the violin in the orchestra and skis at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort most winter weekends. “It gives me something to do,” he said about skiing. “I meet new people, we ski with new people and they push me to be better and do things I wouldn’t do on my own. Maybe I can even help someone else learn, too,” he said. When asked if he sees himself a lifelong skier, he smiled broadly. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ll keep skiing, definitely.”
At the Hernandez house in a quiet neighborhood in Jackson, Emmanuel’s younger brother, Abraham, age 12, chimes in with a story about when he first tried the lift-served terrain at Jackson’s town hill, Snow King Mountain. He was 5 years old at the time. There were the subsequent tumbles, of course, and the struggles with stopping and getting on the lift. “Remember that person who told me not to get on the lift anymore after I fell on his skis?” said Abraham, who got on the lift anyway, bent on his pursuit of skiing. Soon, the two brothers, Nancy, and her husband, Abraham Sr., who works as a cook in town, are all laughing. Abraham Jr. added, for the record, that he can now ski off the top of the mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Skiing is an expensive sport, especially when you’re first getting started—you need gear, lessons, lift tickets. Nancy, who works at a medical clinic in town, said the cost of skiing would make it tough for her family to continue to participate. But Emmanuel and Abraham continue to ski each season with support from Coombs Outdoors, a Jackson-based nonprofit organization formed in 2012 to get kids from lower-income families out on skis. The two boys now participate in weekly ski lessons and get full-season rental gear and ski passes, all for a minimal financial contribution that’s supplemented by fundraising from the organization. Coombs Outdoors selects families for the program based mainly on income level.
The program doesn’t just get the kids skiing. It gets the whole family out. “We really encourage the parents to get involved, so they can ski as a family,” said Coombs Outdoors program manager Maggie Shipley. “It’s a huge part of what we do.”
This winter, about 35 parents have signed up through Coombs Outdoors to take ski lessons alongside their children. “It really doesn’t just help the kids,” Nancy said. “It helps the whole community. You can see it: If people ski, they will talk to anyone, even if their English is not good. They are just trying to integrate into something.”
It all started in 2012, when Jackson local Emily Coombs decided to form a nonprofit called the Doug Coombs Foundation in memory of her late husband, Doug Coombs, who was killed in 2006 in a fall while skiing in La Grave, France, where he and his family spent much of their time. Widely considered one of the best big-mountain skiers of all time, Doug was also renowned for his energy and enthusiasm for sharing the joy of skiing with others.
After his death, Emily left France and moved back to Jackson to raise their young son, David, then 3 years old. As he grew, she noticed that some of his friends had no access to skiing and other outdoor recreation pursuits that the rest of their mountain town community revolved around, mainly due to economic and cultural barriers.
Emily felt like she might be able to make an impact. So, she launched the foundation with the goal of empowering children of all backgrounds through outdoor recreation.
During that first season, Emily enrolled 28 kids in ski lessons at Snow King. That number has climbed steadily over the years and now some 200 kids from the area participate in the program annually. The rapid rise in participation came mostly from word of mouth among the community.
Last year, Emily decided to step down from a leadership role in the organization to pursue other interests, leaving her tribute to Doug—which is now called Coombs Outdoors—in the hands of its current executive director, Mary Erickson, and the rest of the five-person staff. “People in the program feel a real connection to Doug, because he helped people push past their boundaries, and that really resonates with our kids,” said Erickson.
“It really doesn’t just help the kids. It helps the whole community.” —Nancy Hernandez
Now entering its eighth winter, the organization currently promotes year-round recreation, including skiing, climbing, hiking, kayaking, soccer and camping. Children from kindergarten through fifth grade receive lessons at Snow King, and sixth graders through high school seniors can participate in Powder Pals, an all-volunteer skiing mentorship program at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which provides discounted season passes to Coombs Outdoors participants. Kids who show an interest and propensity have the option to move on and ski with the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, the local race team.
“We help the families understand the process and the commitment of skiing, and we help them navigate how to get and stay involved,” said Erickson.
Back at the Hernandez household, Nancy said she’s grateful for the area they get to call home. “I love this town. It’s the best place to raise kids. It’s quiet and healthy, and it encourages you to live a healthy life,” Nancy said. “The people are really caring, especially when you see what the Coombs Foundation has done for us.”
Then, with a smile, she added, “Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres.” It’s a proverb that means, essentially, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or, in this case, when in Jackson Hole, ski.