Chairmen of the boards
December 17, 2013
VAIL — At SOS Outreach, a snowboard is a vehicle kids ride toward opportunity and improvement.
Through 20 years, 36,000 kids have stood in SOS Outreach's Circle of Love, and every one of them can recite the six core values.
"Courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, compassion and humility," said two dozen kids gathered in the circle last weekend.
They learn to snowboard and love the outdoors, which is good. They learn to live by those six core values, which is better.
Saturday is SOS Outreach's 20th anniversary. Arn Menconi and Ray Sforzo launched it on Dec. 21, 1993, to introduce underprivileged mountain kids to snowboarding — and those six core values. Bob Hernreich, Jimmy DeLong and a few others were there. Somehow they got tied into the Dew Tour, and it took off like it was launched off a superpipe.
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Part of this week's 20th anniversary celebration is an SOS-a-thon. Menconi, who is not one of nature's couch potatoes, will work out for 20 hours. By the time you read this he'll be going strong, and you can still help sponsor an hour, or two, or three at http://www.sosoutreach.org. He started at 6 a.m., and his day will include your standard yoga, weight lifting, rock climbing and snowboarding, along with something called Arnrobics. It ends at 2 a.m. with a hip-hop-a-thon.
Menconi did a couple terms as an Eagle County commissioner and suffered all the sling and arrows of outrageous fortune that go with politics, including a couple failed recall attempts.
"Maybe the people who recalled me and failed will give money to this. They might pay to see me in agony," he laughed.
So why, we asked Menconi, work out for 20 hours?
Because no one ever has.
"There are 40,000 youth development charities in this country. They are golf tournaments, dinners, benefit runs … No one has done anything like this in a gym, as far as I could tell," he said.
Spread the love
SOS Outreach's six core values, Menconi points out, were beget from C.S. Lewis's 12 Cardinal Virtues, with emphasis on faith, hope and love.
"We try to instill the core values and a sense of service in youth because there's a big absence of that in today's culture. These are at least as important for children to learn as reading, writing and arithmetic," Menconi said. "We need to teach these kids that by giving back, their own lives get better."
It's not easy, but it's not complicated. Leadership and service are skills you can learn. You'll improve if you work at it.
"You can measure it. Their test scores are going up. They're taking steps to improve their lives," Menconi said. "When we finish, we hope they're leaders dedicated to creating positive change. By the time they graduate high school, these people who think they were at-risk kids are ahead of their peers in competing for spots in the best schools because they understand and have lived service and leadership."
Donations from Vail Resorts
Menconi said the efforts wouldn't be possible without Vail Resorts — the company gives SOS Outreach about $1 million in in-kind donations every year.
"VR has done more than any other corporation for youth development," he said.
The ski company even created an SOS Epic Pin for Saturday's anniversary
"Twenty years is an incredible milestone for SOS Outreach," said Kristin Kenney Williams, Vail Resorts director of public affairs and SOS board member. "Vail Resorts' partnership with SOS uniquely and positively influences the lives of 2,400 kids in Colorado annually — 700 of them right here in Eagle County — using snowsports as a way to teach leadership and an appreciation of core values. Working alongside the amazing SOS staff and so many dedicated local youth have inspired many of us at Vail. 'Spreading the love' among our local kids is making a difference."
This weekend's 20th anniversary will look much like most SOS Outreach weekends. About 500 kids will sharpen their snowboarding skills this weekend across eight U.S. resorts. Some for the first time. Others are in their ninth year and are in SOS University, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the SOS Outreach curriculum.
At-risk kids ride for five days with intense professional instruction, hopefully leading to a sixth-day epiphany like Menconi had when he learned to snowboard in the 1990s. Each day begins and ends with a "Circle of Love" and revolves around one of their six core values.
In the beginning
Menconi grew up on the west side of Chicago. He hit Vail in 1976 when, as a 16-year-old sophomore, he organized a week-long trip for his high school ski club. He calls the trip "transformational" and vowed to return. Life happened, as it always does, and his job brought him to Beaver Creek to handle some condo sales. He never left.
He worked in a ski shop and heard about Sforzo launching Vail Resorts' snowboard school. Sforzo knew a zealot when he saw one. Snowboarding was new and not popular with most resorts, including Vail. To help soften the sport's image they started the Snowboard Outreach Society as a nonprofit to raise money for charity. They hosted snowboard-oriented events like half-pipe competitions and hip-hop parties.
Menconi incorporated SOS as a 501(c)3 devoted to youth development. Hip-hop parties and half-pipe competitions really are an aside.
Today, SOS Outreach has grown into a national youth development program that targets kids with poor grades, low attendance and behavioral issues — situations that typically lead to high school dropout.
"Kids don't drop out of high school and start Facebook or Microsoft. That's Harvard. We help them believe they have a purpose in their lives," Menconi said.
In 2009, SOS merged with Meet the Wilderness, which taught many of the same lessons through summer activities. SOS Outreach programs now include snowboarding, skiing, backpacking, camping, hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking.
Kids are taught how to connect skills in nature and outdoor sports to life skills.
In the meantime, though, Menconi will sweat through today for 20 hours. It's a labor of love, he says.
"I have been blessed to start a charity 20 years ago that uses sports as a vehicle for kids to be inspired to live healthy and successful lives, and as we all know you've got to give to get," Menconi said. "I wanted to do something symbolic that represents that I/we have to dig deep to challenge ourselves to be better leaders and develop our passions to help make a difference, not only in the world but for ourselves."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.