For AVSC, the goal is getting kids on the hill |

For AVSC, the goal is getting kids on the hill

There’s something about the feeling of setting a ski or snowboard edge in a snow-covered mountainside that’s indescribable.

That’s no secret ” it’s what draws visitors to Aspen every year and why many people call it home. It has even changed lives.

Some Roaring Fork Valley residents, however, have never had the opportunity to experience that feeling.

The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club wants that to change.

“Making our programs accessible to anyone who wants to participate is one of the underlying tenets of our mission,” Mark Cole, AVSC’s executive director, said earlier this month.

But as a nonprofit organization, AVSC is somewhat hamstrung, relying heavily on donations.

In recent years, AVSC has broadened efforts to include underprivileged children in its programs. Roughly 1,600 children participate in the variety of AVSC’s recreational and competitive programs, and more than 300 children are on financial aid, a number Cole wants to grow.

One of those children is Alberto Mellin of Carbondale. Mellin always wanted to learn how to snowboard, but his mother, Sylvia, a single mom raising two children, couldn’t afford to buy her son a snowboard, lift tickets and gear. So Alberto’s dream remained just that, until AVSC came to his rescue last year. Now, Mellin snowboards almost every weekend in the winter.

“Oh, my goodness, I can’t explain what it means,” Sylvia Mellin said last month. “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.”

And as Cole said, that’s what AVSC is all about: opportunity for youth and utilizing the area’s natural attributes to enhance character development.

“It’s also about helping the kids excel, connecting them with the spirit that shaped the character of this valley and giving them a personal connection to the mountains,” he said. “[Children] are going to test their limits one way or another, and there are a lot of destructive ways they can do that. We give them a real healthy, positive way of [testing their limits].”

Cole joined AVSC in 2001, after a 17-year career with National Outdoor Leadership School that included stints as a field instructor, an administrator and eventually the finance director position. He said he decided to leave NOLS for AVSC after meeting and talking to the staff.

“They were all here because they realized they were making a difference in the lives of the kids here,” Cole said earlier this month. “I felt if I was going to make a move, it needed to be with another organization I could put my heart into.”

Donations to the club come from individuals, local events and local foundations and municipalities. AVSC’s budget is in excess of $1.7 million, and club officials need to raise over $725,000 this year just to make ends meet. Tuition fees have increased ” roughly 40 percent in the past couple years ” which Cole said was necessary to preserve the overall quality of the program while still making it accessible to underprivileged children.

“I really believe that the key is always going to be staying true to your mission,” he said. “If we do that, we will have outstanding programs that will reach everyone in the valley who wants to participate.

“If you start gutting your programs, how can you inspire anyone to support you?”

Of the 1,600 children associated with AVSC, roughly 300 are involved in the competitive side of the program, which has produced the likes of 2003 ESPN Winter X Games gold medalist Gretchen Bleiler and nationally ranked freestyle skier Steele Spence. The remaining 1,300 members are involved in AVSC’s Base Camp program, run by Susan Blakney, which offers ski and snowboard lessons to children for six to eight weeks every winter.

Without support from local donors, AVSC wouldn’t be able to function as it does now. And in order to expand and reach more children in the valley, the club needs additional help.

“Some folks will have different priorities for their philanthropy,” Cole said. “But I’ve really found that when people stop and listen to what we’re all about, and they’re interested in youth opportunities, they want to help.”

[Steve Benson’s e-mail address is]

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