Aspen club looks to expand skiing opportunities for all of valley’s kids |

Aspen club looks to expand skiing opportunities for all of valley’s kids

A couple years ago, Alberto Mellin’s desire to learn how to snowboard was nothing more than a dream.

His mom, Sylvia Mellin, is a single parent raising two children, and no matter how much she wanted to grant her son’s wish, she couldn’t afford a snowboard, gear and lift tickets.

Then she heard about the Aspen Valley Ski Club (AVSC), which in recent years has boosted its efforts to include less fortunate children in their programs. The club’s Base Camp program, which offers ski and snowboard lessons to children for six to eight weeks every winter and provides financial aid to nearly 300 of its 1,300 participants. Alberto became one of those 300 last winter.

“Oh, my goodness, I can’t explain what it means,” said Sylvia, who lives in Carbondale. “Mostly to my son ” he wants to be a pro ” it’s like giving him the opportunity of his life.

“It’s really important for me because I’m a single parent. If there was not a scholarship, my children would be left out without an opportunity.”

Alan Cole, AVSC’s manager of marketing and development, said reaching families like the Mellins is of the utmost importance.

“That is the essence of what we do,” he said. “Our goal is to be able to reach any interested child in the valley, no matter what their circumstances, to provide opportunities for these kids, to really try to bring them into the community.”

Mellin’s daughter, 8-year-old Braiseida, is also involved in the Base Camp program. And Alberto, she said, is spending as much time as possible on his snowboard. In doing so, he’s developed strong relationships with peers and instructors.

“One of the strengths of our programs, in terms of making these kids feel a part of the valley, is that they’re going to be with other kids from the valley,” said AVSC executive director Mark Cole (no relation to Alan Cole).

“They’re not segregated into other groups, and that leads to lasting friendships. It cuts across school and cultural lines.”

Said Alan Cole, “A kid from Aspen and a kid from Carbondale can meet and become great friends and that’s what we’re all about.”

Mark Cole said most of the children spend between three and four years in the Base Camp program, but their experience is everlasting.

“Regardless of what one ultimately does with skiing [and snowboarding], they will be better people through our programs,” Mark Cole said. “They will have a personal connection to the mountains, and once someone has a personal connection like that, they will do what they can to make sure our local mountain environment is protected.”

While efforts to draw children from Carbondale and Glenwood Springs have been successful, the AVSC aims to make downvalley recruiting even better.

Spearheading the campaign is Susan Blakney, the AVSC Base Camp director.

“We’ve always been trying to reach out to families in need in the valley and give kids these opportunities to participate,” she said. “It’s harder for these families, any family in need, to take the time and come to us.”

So Blakney took matters into her own hands. Many of the children receiving scholarships and financial aid, like Alberto, are Hispanic. As a result, Blakney developed relationships with English as a Second Language teachers from downvalley elementary and middle schools. She began attending parent-teacher meetings, informing parents of the opportunities that were available.

“I have quite a few people who help us with our translations,” Blakney said. “They translate all of our forms and write letters ” there are some parents who speak English and Spanish quite well.”

Blakney’s efforts have paid off ” enrollment at the Basalt and Carbondale registration nights has been up 44 percent over last year.

According to an club press release, last week roughly 200 Hispanics heard Blakney speak about the AVSC during a potluck dinner for bilingual students in Basalt. The following night about 50 parents signed their children up for the program during an ESL meeting at Aspen High School.

“Susan’s just done a wonderful job of connecting with ESL teachers in Aspen and Basalt,” Cole said. “She’s worked with them to arrange specific times Latino families can come to a place they’re already familiar with.”

Additionally, Blakney contacted A Grassroots Aspen Experience, which offers counseling, guidance and leadership programs to Hispanic youth in the valley. Sara Blangsted, Grassroots program coordinator, said their group is always on the lookout for additional activities, “so we felt that it would be a good match.”

Ten Hispanic children from Grassroots have received financial aid to participate in the Base Camp program this winter. Out of the 300 children receiving financial aid through AVSC, roughly 150 are Hispanic.

“We’d like to see that grow, see it get closer to 200,” Mark Cole said.

Alan Cole said AVSC receives contributions from individuals, the city and county, civic groups and private foundations. In addition to the 1,300 participants in the Base Camp and other recreational programs, about 200 people, ranging from children to young adults, are part of the AVSC’s nordic and alpine racing programs.

And while the AVSC has expanded its boundaries and attracted new participants, Alan Cole said those efforts must continue.

“We’re achieving our goals of reaching interested kids, and the more we are able to grow these programs, the more we are able to grow the demand,” he said. “Scholarship aid has grown ” it’s almost doubled in the past three years. Obviously our programs are very popular, and growth is a good thing.

“Susan [Blakney] has been remarkably successful,” he added. “We’re building networks, the kids are helping to spread the word, and the response has been overwhelming.”

“We just want our programs to be accessible, it would be a shame to have kids grow up in this valley and not experience [the mountains],” Mark Cole said.

[Steve Benson’s e-mail address is]

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