SOS Outreach celebrates 30 years of providing youth with opportunities — both on and off the mountain

The organization has engaged over 80,000 kids across the country since starting in Eagle County in 1993

Skiers get out early before lifts opened to the public during the SOS Outreach First Tracks Monday event in Beaver Creek.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

In December 1993, a conversation between four people at a Beaver Creek snowboard shop spurred the creation of SOS Outreach. Thirty years later, the nonprofit has impacted the lives of over 80,000 kids across the country.

On Monday, Jan. 29, SOS Outreach celebrated its history and impact at a First Tracks event at Beaver Creek Resort with some of its Eagle County partners, supporters and alumni.

“At the first meeting of SOS, it was four people who got together to say: ‘How can we have a positive impact through the sport and the mountains,'” regaled Seth Ehrlich, SOS Outreach’s executive director. “From those roots, 30 years ago this year, we’ve now grown into a nationwide movement that is engaging 3,100 kids at 24 mountain resorts in 15 communities — and it all started out of here.”

Snowboarding and beyond

During SOS Outreach’s First Tracks event on Monday in Beaver Creek, candles were presented for the nonprofit’s 30th birthday party.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Ehrlich has been with the organization for 18 years, serving as its executive director since 2014. He stepped into the role after the founder of SOS, Arn Menconi, stepped down from the role after 21 years.

Menconi created the organization as the Snowboard Outreach Society, intending to improve the negative perception of snowboarding and engage students from Denver in the sport. While the first conversation and meeting may have occurred at Beaver Creek, the program was founded at Vail Mountain.

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 In 1998, it launched its five-day SOS Academy curriculum at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek that was rooted in building character and establishing core values among the participants.

In 2007, the organization officially changed its name to SOS Outreach to show that its impact was beyond just snowboarding. At the same time, it opened full-time offices in Summit County and Denver. It has opened new programs in 12 other communities in the years since, including expansions into the Pacific Northwest, West and Midwest. 

Today, each SOS community has the same feel and impact, Ehrlich said: “The most powerful thing we figured out was how to scale that impact.”

In the past 30 years, the growth of the organization has not only been geographic but also in how it has responded to kids’ needs.

“What we do and what we are dedicated to doing is connecting kids to opportunities so that they can bring their talent forward. Talent is equal, everybody has it. Connection to opportunity is not. And that’s where SOS has been really focused, on how to step in to build those bridges,” Ehrlich said. “We stay focused on what our kids need, and so we keep extending the opportunities.”

From school to career

From left, Jessan Loera, Jaden Gonzalez and Miranda Aguirre Amieva, who all work for SOS Outreach after coming through its programs as participants, speak on the benefits of the nonprofit during the First Tracks Monday event in Beaver Creek. The three say SOS Outreach not only gave them the skills to snowboard, but skills that translate to all aspects of life.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

SOS Outreach’s progressive programming begins in fourth and fifth grade introducing students to skiing and snowboarding.

As students grow, the programming evolves with them into SOS Outreach’s mentorship and junior mentorship programs. In recent years, the organization has focused its growth on programming for career development and alumni engagement — seeing a need to support students as they exit high school.  

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There are 50 alumni engaged with SOS today, either as volunteers or in paid positions, Ehrlich said.

On Monday, SOS hosted a panel with students that represented the spectrum of career and leadership opportunities offered through the program featuring three Eagle County alumni and students: Jessan Loera, Jaden Gonzalez and Miranda Aguirre Amieva. All three started with the program in elementary school.

Loera is a former Eagle Valley High School graduate who attended the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and returned to the organization where he now serves as its Eagle County Mentor Program Coordinator. Similarly, Gonzalez is now working as a junior mentor with SOS. Aguirre Amieva was a recent participant in its Career Development program.

Each spoke to the impact SOS has had on their character and their future.

“When you support SOS, you’re not only setting up kids to ski and snowboard, but you’re really setting them up for the future,” Gonzalez said, adding that the leadership skills, discipline and other skills gained through his participation helped him not only secure his first job but are proving invaluable as he applies for college and scholarships.  

“I’m so glad I joined this program, I gained so many things and it set me up for real life,” Aguirre Amieva said, noting that aside from time management skills, the top thing she’s gained has been courage.

Courage and discipline are two of the six core values SOS utilizes to help students reach their potential on and off the mountain. The other four are integrity, humility, compassion and wisdom.

“We take a core value and align it with every single ride day. So we try to make this core value not just a word, but a part of everyday life,” said Tarah Waters, senior program manager for the Midwest, Pacific Northwest and Ski Cooper in Leadville.

More than the sport

Tarah Waters with SOS Outreach and from left, Jessan Loera, Jaden Gonzalez and Miranda Aguirre Amieva speak Monday at Beaver Creek as part of an SOS celebration during First Tracks Monday in Beaver Creek. SOS Outreach is celebrating its 30th birthday.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

While not an alumnae of SOS, like many students who join, Waters applied for a job at SOS to better her skills on the mountain.

“I was born and raised in Denver and always wanted to live up here, but I took a long hiatus from skiing and I wanted to get better. This job opened up so I lied about my abilities to get the job so that I could learn how to be a better skier and get connected to youth again,” she said.

And while her skills have improved, the kids have made her job worthwhile.  

“It’s unlike anything in the world to see a kid that’s grown up in these communities their whole life go to the mountain for the first time and just lose it. They have such an appreciation for the mountains, and it reminds me why I love it so much,” Waters said. “SOS goes so much more beyond skiing and snowboarding, it’s about the conversations you have on a chair lift, it’s about the conversations you have at lunch and it’s about connecting on a human level.”

Through her role, Waters has seen the “extremely powerful” impact that SOS can spur in all aspects of the kids’ lives.

“This isn’t about us giving kids what they don’t already have, it’s about us supporting and giving them an extra shoulder to lean on,” she said.

Drew Dodd with Vail Resorts speaks Monday on the partnership between Vail Resorts and SOS Outreach at the breakfast at Allie’s Cabin in Beaver Creek. SOS Outreach was one of the first among the 160 nonprofits that Vail Resorts works with across its 37 North American Resorts, Dodd said.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Travis Tafoya signed up for SOS Outreach as a fifth grader in Eagle County. While Tafoya had been introduced to snowboarding during the school district’s annual ski days, he and his two brothers didn’t have a way to consistently continue the sport.

“Growing up, my parents worked several jobs to make ends meet and get us by. It’s hard to afford it for a family with three kids trying to get gear and passes and coaching,” Tafoya said.

However, through SOS, Tafoya not only began to learn the sport but was able to attend Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy where he competed in slopestyle and halfpipe.

“SOS kept the access going,” Tafoya said.

However, beyond access, it gave Tafoya and his brothers a lot more.

“SOS provided us with mentorship, value-based curriculum and leadership development that we weren’t really getting in a school system or elsewhere, and that a lot of our other peers had through their family and connections,” he said.

After graduating high school and college, Tafoya helped SOS Outreach start its Chicago programs. Today, Tafoya serves on SOS Outreach’s board of directors and as the senior manager of inclusive access and community impact at Vail Resorts. 

Through his participation in SOS and now his career, Tafoya has seen the power of the model of the organization.

“A lot of the youth that we’re working with are maybe not as familiar of connecting with other people, or they’re entering a new space and it’s kind of a scary thing to try out. But you’re connecting them with a group of people from similar backgrounds or have a similar purpose, and then you’re doing something together,” Tafoya said.

Cara Sherpa joined SOS Outreach as a 10-year-old who had recently immigrated to Eagle County from Nepal. For her, the SOS connections have been critical to her success from graduating from the University of Denver to serving in stints as an alumni liaison for SOS, on the Colorado Equity Board and as a fellow at The Leadership Academy.  

“This is going to sound really cheesy, but I think the person that I am today and the person that I’ve become was because of the people that I’ve met through SOS and the community that I’ve built within SOS,” she said. “And I’ve stayed involved because of it.”

As SOS reflects on its history and the 80,000 lives it has touched, it is also looking ahead to continue creating opportunities for more and more students.

“It is a history that we hold very closely,” Ehrlich added. “And we will leverage that history for all the impact we will have in our future.”

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