Chill program introduces 13 kids to Vail Mountain |

Chill program introduces 13 kids to Vail Mountain

Melanie Wong
Chill participants celebrate at last year's Burton U.S. Open. Each year the youth nonprofit selects 13 kids from its programs across the nation to attend the Vail event.
Special to the Daily |

If you go...

What: Chill fundraiser at the Burton U.S. Open

Where: Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum, Vail Village

When: Wednesday, 8:30 to 10:30 p.m.

How much: Minimum $20 donation at the door.

More info:

VAIL — Gabe Hamilton reacted like many high school seniors would when he found out he was headed to Vail for the Burton U.S. Open. He jumped around, whooping and hollering when he received the call from his mom telling him the news.

What makes Hamilton different from many of the other young people who will be at Burton’s annual snowboarding competition today through Saturday is that he didn’t grow up in the mountains and his family never went on ski vacations.

In fact, this trip is his first time to Colorado, and he didn’t step foot on a snowboard until ninth grade, when a school counselor introduced him to Chill, Burton’s youth nonprofit program.

This week, Hamilton is among 13 kids from Burton’s 13 program locations around the country who were selected to attend the competition. Hamilton represents the Seattle branch of the nonprofit, and there will also be kids from major cities such as Baltimore, Los Angeles and Denver. During their stay, they’ll get to meet ride, watch the competitions, meet some of the athletes, hang out with Burton founders Jake and Donna Carpenter, and represent Chill at the nonprofit’s tent.

Life lessons through snowboarding

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Chill introduces underserved kids to the sport of snowboarding, and during the six-week program, the participants learn about leadership and life skills, and build self-esteem. The participants, ages 10 to 18, come from a variety of backgrounds, but all of them would not have had the opportunity to snowboard outside of Chill.

“We work with groups like the Boys and Girls Club, juvenile justice, rehab and about 80 percent of the kids we serve are living in poverty,” said June Heston, the program’s executive director. “We say it’s for kids who haven’t snowboarded and otherwise wouldn’t have this opportunity.”

Hamilton describes his life in ninth grade as “pretty rough.” His parents had gotten a divorce, and Hamilton said he was struggling with depression, antisocial tendencies and anger.

“My counselor said, ‘You should try Chill.’ I was really excited about it, and coming to this program changed my perspective on life,” he said. “I got to do something I loved, and it helped me deal with my depression and anger. It taught me to take the negative stuff in my life and not let it control me.”

He liked it so much that he came back the second year as a helper and said he hopes to be involved with the organization after he graduates from high school. His current plans for the future include college and earning a degree to work in wildlife rehabilitation.

Chill leader Ryan Madison said he’s seen Hamilton come a long way, becoming a leader for younger kids, which is why he was chosen to attend the Burton U.S. Open.

“I’ve really noticed him leading by example. He was looking out for younger kids in the group and encouraging them. He’s been an exceptionally strong person, leading everybody by example,” said Madison.

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Heston said many kids in the program have transformative experiences just like Hamilton .

“We had one kid who said, ‘Before Chill, I would sit in the corner and not talk to anybody.’ He’d been in and out of rehab a couple of times, but he said, ‘I will never do drugs again. I know who I am now, and I am never going to do drugs again,’” Heston remembered.

Of course, the appeal of learning to snowboard draws many kids to the program, but Heston says the experience is so much more.

“I feel like snowboarding is the door to get them in. We see it as a vehicle, and they see it as an objective,” she said. “We get them on the mountain and talk about these weekly themes and lessons. These kids are completely out of their comfort zone, so for the first time they’re all on an equal playing field, and they have to work to make this happen. It gives them a real sense of accomplishment and pride.”

Chill invites the general public to be part of their efforts at a fundraising event tonight from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in Vail Village.

There’s a $20 minimum donation at the door, and attendees will enjoy food and drinks, and hear more about Chill’s work.

“We get to where we fill up the space now. It’s our third year doing the event in Vail, so a lot of people know who we are and come out to support us,” said Heston.

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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