Aspen Youth Experience lets youngsters mellow, change |

Aspen Youth Experience lets youngsters mellow, change

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Like a lot of people, Aspen mellows Antwon Beckett.

“This place keeps me in my mind,” he said while riding up Snowmass’ Assay Hill lift in Wednesday’s unseasonably warm weather.

But Beckett, a high school student from Washington, D.C., isn’t in Aspen for the typical ski vacation with his parents. He’s here for a week of snowboard lessons, life skills and intense self-reflection with Aspen Youth Experience (AYE).

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association last week denoted the 18-year-old nonprofit the “best nonprofit of the year.” This week, it welcomed more than 50 youth participants and group leaders to Aspen from the Roaring Fork Valley, New York City, Washington, Kansas City and California.

And while AYE runs the week-long program, it is a community effort. The Aspen Skiing Co. donated the passes, local ski shops donated the equipment, and numerous local restaurants donated lunches or dinners. Throughout Aspen and Snowmass, families donated bedrooms ” or in some cases, camping space in the family room ” to house students and counselors.

And to make the skiing portion of the week happen, approximately 35 Skico instructors donated their time, all for the sheer joy of teaching skiing to those who might not otherwise learn how to do it.

Just before lunch Wednesday, snowboard instructor Benjamin Gottlieb said he watched a student snowboard down the entire hill by herself, with turns ” after insisting yesterday that she would never learn.

“I think she’ll carry that with her,” said Gottlieb, a return volunteer who now coordinates the snowboard instructors.

Still, even the instructors emphasize skiing and snowboarding are simply a way to give the students a level playing field and a challenge they can overcome.

“It’s a metaphor for the obstacles you face in life,” explained high school student and peer counselor Kiara Gaytan, of East Palo Alto, Calif.

Jason Cruz said he didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he first headed out to Aspen as a 16-year-old from New York City.

“I didn’t know what it was about,” he said. “I heard you got to stay in a big house and ski and snowboard.” But as the program progressed, and people started sharing stories and feelings, he realized things were becoming serious, he said. By the end, he said, he was inspired to improve his relationship with his father, stop cutting class and set better life goals.

After years of returning to AYE programs, he finished high school and headed to college. Now a poised and eloquent adult, he works as an event marketer for Red Bull. But each year, he takes time out to co-facilitate the AYE programs, along with program director Carleen Joseph.

“The whole purpose of coming out here is to change,” said Beckett, the D.C. resident, on the lift. “Carleen told us, ‘When you sign up for this program, it’s like an invitation for me to help change you.'” And while the work done on the ski hill is important, staff and participants say, most point to the after-skiing “rap sessions” as the true heart of the program.

Cruz explained that when the winter program first started, it included only youths from New York and Denver. They’d ski during the day, and at night, the kids ended up in “really deep” conversation. It wasn’t long before staff saw there was a need for structured time to talk, he said. This week, staff have used exercises such as “story bracelets” ” where beads represent important events in one’s life ” to prompt deep discussion.

And to make sure this experience resonates, students will meet with counselors in their home city once a month afterward. At the meetings, they revisit the goals they’ve set at the end of the program, participate in community service and tap back into their Aspen experience. If experience is any indication, many will end up returning to AYE programs numerous times.

“We make a commitment to be consistently in their lives,” Joseph said.

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