We are family | AspenTimes.com

We are family

May Eynon

Nonprofit organization Aspen Grassroots Experience (AGE) was established in 1991 to serve “at-risk” youth from inner cities around the country as well as from the Roaring Fork Valley. Founder John Reid’s vision was to help youth make responsible decisions about their lives and their future.

Through weeklong outdoor experiential programs held in the winter and summer, these young people would be confronted by new challenges that they could learn to overcome. In turn, they would leave with skills they could apply back home. At nightly forums known as “Rap Sessions,” they would also be encouraged to share their hardships and set their goals in a safe and accepting environment.

Last week the Grassroots family reunited for the annual Winter Program. The “family” comprises participants, peer counselors, group leaders, staff, board members, host families, volunteers, donors and friends made along the way.

“Once you join our family we don’t like to let you go,” said Rap Session facilitator Derek Canty with a smile as he welcomed new members to the group last week. Canty has been involved with AGE since its inception and is an instrumental part of its success.

Ranging in age from 12 to 18, participants are encouraged to continue with the program as they get older. With at least two programs under their belts and after turning 18, they can apply to be peer counselors, essentially serving as a bridge between the youth and the group leaders. Group leaders must be over the age of 21 and supervise a set group of individuals throughout the week.

The 2004 Winter Program began with an opening banquet at Bumps on Monday, Jan. 12. Honorary guest speaker Sam Ferguson, a disabled skier, presented clips from his debut in “Journey,” the latest Warren Miller film released last fall. Ferguson offered a glimpse into his life as a paraplegic after a mountain bike accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Ferguson chose to fight this setback and is now ranked among the world’s best chair skiers.

Aron Ralston also attended as a special guest, presenting an abbreviated speech describing his well-known self-rescue last spring and encouraging youth to exercise the power of their mind-set to reach their potential.

Through the charitable nature of the community, AGE was able to conduct another wonderful week. Local businesses from Aspen to Snowmass donated lunch and dinner. The Aspen Recreation Center (ARC) donated the use of its ice rink, climbing wall and pool for an afternoon of indoor play. The Aspen Skiing Company generously provided lift tickets to the participants and staff of the program. Twenty ski and snowboard instructors from the Aspen Skiing Company volunteered their time to teach on the slopes at Snowmass.

As the snowboarding instructor coordinator, Darnell Rose was responsible for recruiting fellow instructors for the three days on the mountain. “It was no problem rounding up volunteers,” he explained. “All I had to do was tell them a little bit about the kids and they were hooked.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised mostly in Southern California, Rose himself was exposed to street life at an early age, but chose to shun it for a better path. “How can I not give back?” Rose asked. “Though I wasn’t an ‘at-risk’ youth myself per se, I can relate to what these kids are faced with. The only way I can really afford to support them is by volunteering my time and offering my abilities as an instructor.” Fondly known by his students as “Mr. D.,” Rose has been involved for about eight years with the program and is clearly an asset.

By the end of the program, all participants emerged stronger, more closely knit and farther down the road to self-empowerment.

“It went by too quickly,” said peer counselor Jay Barbosa at the closing banquet. “We were having too much fun.”

Participant Alvin Green especially wanted to pay tribute to his snowboard instructor Rich Keery. “I really enjoyed Rich because he’s so laid-back and patient. He would tell me what to do and when to do it, and it was cool.”

Dreama Goldsmith, a member of the Grassroots family for the past five years, returned as a peer counselor last week. “I owe a lot to Grassroots,” she stated. “If there’s anything I’ve learned here, it’s that the highest boundary I must climb in life is one I set up in my mind.” A college student in Louisiana, Goldsmith leaves next week for a semester in France.

Founder John Reid, who now lives in Denver, returned to spend a few days with the youths. Impressed by the direction of the organization, Reid remarked, “It’s a magnificent tribute to the community and volunteers who have helped shape Grassroots.”

“It’s an incredible program,” said group leader Ayesha Bogart. “It’s done wonders for me.”

“Grassroots saves lives,” echoed peer counselor Chuck Henderson. “It’s as simple as that.”

To contact May to send info, insight or invites, e-mail: allthewaymaymay@hotmail.com