Growing up on the slopes
EAGLE COUNTY – Jessa and Taibi Giarratano are almost finished with their university programs. Thing is, neither one has ever set foot in a college classroom.
Taibi, 15, and his sister, Jessa, 13, who live in Eagle, are participants in the Snowboard Outreach Society’s University Program. The program is four years in length – that’s how it got its name – and, while going to college is a goal for them some day, it’s not their main reason for taking part. “We love to ride,” the siblings said. The two came up in the Snowboard Outreach Society’s Learn to Ride program, which helps kids who might not otherwise have the chance to snowboard. When the Giarratanos graduated from Learn to Ride and started the University Program, they quickly realized that snowboarding was about much more than riding, they said. “Learning to ride was cool,” Taibi said. “But learning about the ‘core values’ has made me a better person.”
‘Doing a better job’The “core values” are courage, wisdom, integrity, discipline, and compassion – and they are at the heart of the Learn to Ride and University programs run by the Snowboard Outreach Society, better known by its acronym, SOS. “Core values tie into snowboarding,” said Caroline Haines, a University Program coordinator for SOS, full-time mom, and part-time SOS staffer. “But more than that, they tie into other areas of their life.” Kids in the University Program start in Learn to Ride, where they first hear about the core values while learning to snowboard. As they move on, things start to evolve. “Of course, snowboarding remains a crucial component,” Haines said. “But, in the University Program, the Snowboard Outreach Society continues to grow its roots in character education, civic and community engagement, social skills training and vocational training through the core values.”The five-SOS-sponsored ride days correspond to the five core values. But that’s just the beginning. University Program participants – there are 90 in Eagle County – are also encouraged to set goals for themselves, and to participate in community projects like the Eagle River Cleanup or the Salvation Army Thanksgiving Basket drive.In the third year of the program, students can take workshops on health, nutrition and fitness. Additionally, students design, develop and implement their own community outreach project. In the fourth year, workshops are offered on job skills, and students participate in a job shadow situation based on their career interests.Justin Fackler, a freshman at Eagle Valley High School, said he has seen immediate benefits from his participation in the University Program.”I have been doing a better job on my school work and I don’t blow off what my teachers tell me like I used to,” Fackler said . “I have set goals, like graduating from high school.”The circle of loveIt’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Beaver Creek Mountain. As the sun sets over Larkspur Bowl, most people are taking their last run and heading to their cars. But a group of kids remains outside the ticket window, accompanied by a few adults and several snowboard instructors. The group forms a circle, and joins hands. Then they take turns speaking.”I learned that no matter how hard you biff, you have to get back up and keep trying,” said one girl.A shy and quiet voice speaks next, and all in the circle listen intently. The boy explained how he was afraid to try his toe edge snowboarding when the day started, but by day’s end he had succeeded in linking his turns together. The pride in his voice is evident.It’s a SOS ritual called the “circle of love,” and the effect it has on its participants is visible and inspiring.”It reiterates the things they learn on the mountain,” said Tom Dodge, an SOS volunteer in the Learn to Ride program. “I like the circle of love and the core values, because it’s never too early to start instilling these ideas in kids.”Dodge got involved in the program after hearing about it from some of his students at Eagle Valley Middle School, where he teaches music and coaches basketball.”It has helped me get to know some of the students on a different level,” Dodge said. “Snowboarding with them forms a bond beyond the kind that develops in the classroom.”Jodi Link is a program coordinator for SOS. She sees kids grow at their own pace in the circle, she said. “I see a lot of kids coming from being shy to being more smiley and outgoing in the circle of love,” Link said. “Especially if you don’t pressure them, they will come out when they are ready.”The core value of the day on this day is discipline. Last week’s was courage. The kids in the circle explain how those words relate to snowboarding, and life.”For me, I need discipline to try my toe turns,” said Holli Garcia, an eighth-grader from Eagle Valley Middle School. “It gives me knots in my stomach when I try them, so I need courage too.”Jessica Trujillo is a sixth-grader at Eagle Valley Middle School. She speaks about what the word of the day taught her.”I want to learn how to snowboard, and I need discipline to get out here and practice,” she said. “But I also need discipline at school to do my homework and pay attention in class.”New values, new friendsThe Giarratanos said they see the core values in every aspect of snowboarding. “You have to have discipline to get up early for good snow. You have to have the wisdom to now your limitations on the mountain or you will mess yourself up and you have to have the courage to try something new every time,” said Taibi, a freshman at Eagle Valley High School. “You have to have compassion to help other people out on the mountain, and you have to have the integrity to follow the rules of the ski area when you are up there,” he said. Jessa said things she learned on the mountain also helped her off of the mountain. “As far as discipline goes, snowboarding gets me off my butt, and makes me go out and do something,” she said. “For compassion, it has also made me a nicer person. I say ‘hi’ to people at school that I might not have talked to before. I have made a lot of new friends through SOS.” That is a theme repeated over and over: SOS is about making new friends and creating a sense of community.”I wanted to join so I could learn how to snowboard,” Fackler said. “I think of SOS as a community thing. It’s fun, you get to get together and meet new people and do something on the weekend. And, they give us a free lift ticket.”Daniel Barron and Eddie Nevarez attend Gypsum Creek Middle School. They use similar words when talking about the ride days.”I love riding with my friends,” said Nevarez. “I wasn’t good at S-turns at first, but I had the courage to keep trying. Now I’m getting better.””It’s only my second time snowboarding,” Barron added. “I like being with my friends, and the instructors because they are all patient and help me get better.”Patience is not always an instinctive trait for adolescents, but it’s one that Haines sees in SOS kids on a regular basis, she said. “It’s so cool to see the older kids wait and sacrifice a run to help someone else,” said Haines. “They realize they are not that far removed from being the one left behind. They do it without us telling them to.”
David L’Heureux can be reached at dlheureux@CMNM.orgVail, Colorado