AVSC on a new track | AspenTimes.com

AVSC on a new track

Nate Peterson
AVSC instructors Tom Hines, left, and John Callahan guide a group Latino students from Aspen Elementary School in nordic skiing, another component of the club's outreach efforts. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Panic. That’s what Irma Martinez of Carbondale felt when her three children filed onto the free bus to Snowmass for the first time four years ago.Did they have everything? Yes, she had made sure to double check. Gloves. Goggles. Hats. The used snowboards and bindings that she and her husband, Juan, had managed to purchase for all three. The whole family had agreed to this, she reminded herself. Snowboarding on the weekends through a program offered by local nonprofit Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club – indeed, this would be a good thing for the children. Not only would it provide them with something to do during the long winter, but it would give them a means to connect with some of their Anglo peers.And, thanks to scholarships for all three, it was affordable. Martinez only had to pay $50 to enroll them in the program.Something just didn’t feel right, though. Martinez herself had never ventured near a chairlift in her life, nor ever considered trying skiing or snowboarding. The unknown led her to dream up frightening scenarios.The mountains are so big, what if they get lost? Or one of them gets hurt? Breaks a leg?Once the bus left the Carbondale Elementary School parking lot to begin its journey upvalley, Martinez jumped in her car to follow behind. At Snowmass, she walked up to the base of Assay Hill to watch her children from below – especially keeping an eye out for her youngest, 6-year-old Jessica. “They couldn’t see me,” Martinez said. “I could barely see them. I could just pick them out by the color of their jackets.”As she watched her children learn to snowboard that day, her initial fears began to fade. Once she saw how much fun they were having, she knew she and her husband had made the right decision. They skipped a few bills that first year to purchase all of the equipment for the kids, but it was definitely worth it.The decision didn’t just solely benefit her family, either, Martinez said. After her children’s positive experience, she began lauding the AVSC’s Base Camp program – and the scholarships it offers – to friends, who in turn signed up their own children. The pattern has repeated itself over and over.

Susan Blakney, AVSC’s Base Camp director, said Martinez’s story is similar other local Latino parents who have enrolled their children in one of the recreational programs at AVSC.In her five years with the club, Blakney has canvassed the valley, speaking to Latino groups about the club’s scholarship opportunities. During that time, she has encountered a number of parents who are afraid of the unfamiliar.More often than not, Blakney said, she is fighting false perceptions; many believe skiing and snowboarding are sports reserved for the rich, white elite.When she maps out the ways the club makes it possible for local children to participate – including free lift tickets, free bus rides and the discounted equipment – preconceived notions quickly evaporate, Blakney said.”The club’s mission has always been to be all-inclusive, and to represent the entire community,” Blakney said. “One of the extraordinary things we can do at the recreational level is to reach out not only to kids whose families have grown up here skiing and snowboarding, but to those who moved here and to those who are so financially challenged that they never thought it would be possible.”This year alone, AVSC has awarded $63,500 in scholarships to Latino participants, up from $40,930 last year. Blakney also points to the club’s Latino participation numbers, which have increased steadily since 2001 from less than 100 to 250.Altogether, AVSC’s Latino participants account for 13 percent of the club’s enrollment.

The numbers are far from the norm in the powder-white ski industry.Last year, minorities made up only 12 percent of skier and snowboarder visits in the United States, 2.7 percent of whom which were Latinos, according to Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association. Colorado lags behind the national average, with only 10 percent of its skier and snowboarder visits coming from minorities, according to Boulder-based research firm RRC Associates. It’s definitely not because of a shortage of minorities. As of the 2000 national census, Colorado’s nonwhite population was 25 percent, with Latinos making up 17 percent of the population.A ski club in arguably the most exclusive ski town in Colorado with a minority enrollment of 13 percent is an aberration, to say the least.Recently, AVSC was awarded a one-year grant of $5,000 from the Colorado Trust/El Pomar Foundation. The club has also been singled out by the Wall Street Journal for its enterprising approaches to bringing Latinos to skiing and snowboarding.”All of the sudden these statewide foundations are starting to look at integration issues and realize that this is a problem in the state of Colorado,” said Alan Cole, AVSC marketing and development manager. “We’re filling a particular niche. It’s wonderful that all of the sudden there are statewide organizations, large funders and large foundations that are looking at this.”

On a recent Saturday at the children’s race area at Snowmass, it’s easy to gauge the impact that AVSC is making in the community. Looking at numbers on a spreadsheet is one thing; actually seeing scores of Latino children dotting the side of the mountain in ski and snowboard gear is another.Five hundred of AVSC’s younger Base Camp participants have gathered on this day to run gates and enjoy some burgers and hot dogs, grilled up by AVSC staff members and Snowmass ski instructors. Most noticeable, or rather unnoticeable, is that underneath all of the helmets and goggles and puffy jackets and snowpants, it’s hard to pick out the Latino children amidst their Anglo counterparts.During the season, Base Camp participants are paired off into groups with a respective instructor depending on age and ability. Ethnicity doesn’t factor into the selection process.”Ramon Verduzco, he’s a father of some of the children who works in the school system,” Blakney said. “In the schools, he said the kids are still sitting in their cultural groups in the cafeteria. But when they’re up on the hill, they’re just put into groups based on their age and ability. It really is truly an integrating process. I think one of the things that is unique is that we don’t just offer a special program for Latinos. It’s the same program offered to everybody.”There’s more to the desegregation process than just race. Boys are grouped with girls, and children from various schools throughout the valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, are linked up.While chomping on some Fritos, 8-year-old Alfonso Lopez Rosales of Carbondale noted that at school he hangs out mostly with his two best friends, both of whom are Latino. But since he started skiing this year on Saturdays, Rosales said he has buddied up with all sorts of kids.

When asked for his feelings about meeting new friends through skiing, some of whom have a different skin color than his own, Rosales just shrugged his shoulders.Similar questions elicited similar responses from other program participants, both Anglo and Latino, male and female.”They’re here to ski and that’s all they want to talk about,” said Amy Slabaugh, an instructor at Snowmass who was paired with Rosales and 13 other children under the age of 10 this season. “It’s skiing, skiing, skiing. It’s like, ‘Let’s go ski the bumps, go over some jumps.’ That’s pretty much it. They don’t get into their personal lives too much.”And that’s exactly the point. Blakney said the club’s objective is to provide a common bond through skiing and snowboarding – one that makes cultural and class differences less pronounced in the community. Joana Ospina, a soft-spoken 9-year-old from Aspen, said she wanted to learn to ski simply because her brother had started before her, not because she had heard her classmates at school talk about it.”I wanted to do it because you get to go fast, and I like winter,” she said. “You get to learn, and you get lunch, and it’s a lot of fun.” Kimberlyn Arroyos, 9, of El Jebel, had similar sentiments. Her cousins had enrolled in the program before her, which got her interested.

“The best part has been jumping and learning how to hockey stop,” she said. “It’s also cool meeting other people, knowing where they’re from and how old they are.”

That common bond is one that Irma Martinez said her children were missing when she and her husband moved the family to Carbondale from Southern California eight years ago .Before her children began snowboarding four years ago, they never fully accepted Colorado as their home.”They wanted to go back to California,” she said. “Snowboarding gave them a totally different perspective. It made them appreciate where they live.”Added Cole, “It’s gives some of these [Latino] kids an identity. As opposed to, ‘I’m from Basalt because my family moved there,’ it’s ‘Hey, I am from Basalt and I’m proud of that. And here’s what being from Basalt means I get to do. And this is something that’s special, and this is something that I’ve come to identify with being a local, with being a part of the community.'”Alfonso Dolores of Snowmass Village, the father of three children enrolled in the program, agreed. Adolfo, 16, Rebeca, 14, and Moises, 12, were born in the valley, but even still there was a disconnect from the community at large until they began snowboarding, he said.The culture of mountain sports is so engrained in the local culture that to not participate was to have a sense of being left out.

“They got so excited when they got in this program because they always had wanted to do it,” Dolores said. “They love it. The love their instructor and they love going with their groups. It’s like teamwork.”The change in perspective doesn’t just stop with the kids, either. Taking a cue from them, Dolores recently took up skiing. Martinez and her husband have also done the same.”Now we go together. I ski together with them, and I love it,” Dolores said. “It’s just a great sport for me. I really encourage them to continue snowboarding. The whole time I never tried to ski; I missed all that time. I really wanted to do it before, but I never did, and now I wish I had skied longer.”Added Martinez, “Some of my friends think I’m crazy. They’re like, ‘You go skiing?’ I tell them I can’t believe I lived her for so many years and waited this long to go.”This, from a mother who admits she was once afraid of chairlifts.It’s funny, the lessons parents learn from their kids.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com

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