Life as a competitive skier is a full-time job. Beyond eating, sleeping and training, skiers usually spend a solid chunk of time drumming up financial support to cover some, if not all, of their skiing-and-life expenses.
Last year, nine Canadian cross-country skiers put their needs aside for the time being to fundraise for a charity completely unrelated to their sport. SchoolBOX is an Ontario-based nonprofit focused on building elementary schools in impoverished areas of Nicaragua.
Headed by two-time Olympian Perianne Jones, the group of skiers known as “Skiers 4 SchoolBOX” raised money last year then travelled to Nicaragua this spring to dive into the construction.
Jones’s connection to SchoolBOX started in her hometown of Almonte, Ontario. A longtime friend of one of the nonprofit’s founders, Jones — like others in her small town — was supportive of local causes. She had been one herself as an up-and-coming nordic skier shooting for the Olympics. She decided to pay it forward to a third-world support group, founded in 2006, aimed at making education possible for children.
“There was a fundraising run before the Olympics in 2010 for me [in Almonte],” Jones reflected on the phone earlier this month. “I didn’t want the money to be only for me so I decided to split the money from that with SchoolBOX. I think that was where things started.”
As part of their school-building program, SchoolBOX makes an effort to connect groups of North Americans to their projects, inviting people to take part in fundraising and volunteering on the ground in Nicaragua. Jones wanted to assemble a group of skiers.
But the stars would not align for this larger-scale partnership between Jones and SchoolBOX until after the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I always wanted to do more with them, but the timing never lined up until after the Games,” she said.
She started planning her first trip to Nicaragua’s Masaya region last spring.
One would imagine that it might be hard to sell the idea of volunteering manual labour in a foreign country, especially considering the fact that each volunteer is responsible for their transportation to and from that place.
But according to at least two of the participating skiers, that was not the case — the decision to help out was spontaneous.
“It actually just happened really quickly, kind of on a whim,” said Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt of Rocky Mountain Racers. “I was over at Zoë [Roy’s place] doing, I dunno, something crafty, and she was like, ‘Hey, so I’m going to Nicaragua in April for Skiers 4 SchoolBOX and Peri wants us to commit today if you wanna come.’ I didn’t even hesitate.”
Before earning silver and bronze at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics, Mark Arendz of Canada’s Para-Nordic Team was planning ahead last year for what he’d do after the Games and learned about Skiers 4 SchoolBOX on Facebook.
“I chatted with Perianne Jones, and before our conversation was over I was in,” he said.
In addition to Roy, Bouffard-Nesbitt and Arendz, Emily Nishikawa, Gerard Garnier, Stuart Harden, Ruth Tamas, and Jones’ husband, Joel Jaques, also signed up by April 2013.
Then they started fundraising.
Finding the funds
“Definitely the biggest thing was coming up with the money to make it happen,” Jones explained.
Each person in the group had to raise about $1,000, and in an effort to do so, they planned a fundraiser for last fall in Canmore, around the time of Frozen Thunder. According to Bouffard-Nesbitt, the fundraiser didn’t go quite as planned.
“We put a decent amount of effort into the event itself, but we didn’t do a very good job making sure people were gonna come,” she said. “We had a band, drinks, food and a really good silent auction. When you have a lot of Olympians in the group you get good silent-auction stuff. … After the event, it was pretty much up to each of us to go out and collect our shares of the money.”
Volunteers had to pay for their own flights.
“We were fundraising for the part where we were actually on the ground in Nicaragua,” Jones said. “Mostly the money was for the school project itself. They have a construction crew that they pay down there, so they make sure that they’re providing jobs for Nicaraguans and helping them out that way.”
Training in Nicaragua
The skiers were in Nicaragua this spring, from April 3 to April 10. Many of them stuck around a bit longer to explore the country.
“After an Olympic cycle, I think everyone just wanted to shake things up and do something different,” Jones said.
Because the trip happened at the start of the offseason, everybody was content to enjoy their time away from ski training. Beyond the grueling work of removing dirt from the ground, physical activity was kept to a minimum and consisted of activities such as Roy’s “Tarahumara runs,” according to Bouffard-Nesbitt, (like in Born to Run).
“Basically they’re twelve-minute runs and it’s kind of like parkour I guess,” she said. “You just go and you do whatever you want and each person takes a turn leading. So you jump off benches and do summersaults and run around posts and do cartwheels and stuff.”
Building the school
Upon arrival in Nicaragua, the first day of work started after a night’s sleep and a long drive, to the construction site, in the morning.
“We were driving down this narrow, super-bumpy dirt road and we turn a corner and there’s this crowd of children standing there,” Bouffard-Nesbitt recalled. “They’re jumping up and down and they had our names printed out on paper that they were holding up.”
After the warm welcome, it was time to get to work: in their week there, the skiers’ goal was to dig of a big hole for the school’s septic system.
“The hole that we dug was 3-meters deep, 2-meters wide and 3-meters long. By the end we needed a ladder to get in and out of it,” Jones said.
“Mostly what we raised money for was for a sports field, but just so it happened, for the period of time we were there, what they needed done was digging this big hole. Some of the dirt from the hole went to the sports field eventually.”
Throughout the week it became clear that the children who would be attending the school had a deep desire to be a part of building it.
“They were so invested in it,” Jones said. “Some of the older kids would come out and grab our shovels and get down in the hole and dig with us. They were really keen to help. When you don’t have a place to learn, you really want that kind of thing. I think for a lot of us, it’s a given.”
“Some of the older kids would come out and grab our shovels and get down in the hole and dig with us. … When you don’t have a place to learn, you really want that kind of thing. I think for a lot of us, it’s a given.” — Perianne Jones, Skiers 4 SchoolBOX leader & two-time Canadian Olympic cross-country skier
But it wasn’t all tough work around the construction site. Usually around midday, the hole-digging would wrap up and the skiers would spend time playing with the kids.
“One of my favourite memories has to be the soccer-baseball game we had the last day with everyone,” Arendz said. “The construction workers, volunteers, community members and kids — a great time playing but also watching everyone else enjoy themselves.”
More than just construction work
“We realized after a couple days at the work site that the people at SchoolBOX saw just as much value in having outsiders come and play with the kids, rather than just, like, digging a hole the entire time” Bouffard-Nesbitt explained.
“It means a lot to the kids to see that people are coming all the way from Canada and that people care that much about their school,” she added. “In turn, it makes them care about their school. All the kids who attend do so by choice, so the more they’re invested in their school the better.”
In Nicaragua these schools are more than just the average learning place. They act as a community centre through which other opportunities arise.
“Once you have a school in a community it opens the doors for all kinds of other things you can have,” Jones said. “Once you have a school you can have a food program as well.”
On April 10, the skiers departed — some back to Canada and others to explore other parts of Nicaragua. Their part of the project was finished but the work on the school would continue until the end of July, at which point, to the excitement of everyone involved, the school was completed.
So will there be more Skiers 4 SchoolBOX projects in the future?
A Canadian cross-country ski racer with the Alberta World Cup Academy, Zeke spends most of his time in Canmore, Alberta, but calls Cantley, Quebec, his home. He thinks that you can learn a lot about a person from their goals — his is to ski really fast on the Winter Olympic race course in 2018. Find him on the web: http://ezekielwilliams.ca/ and on twitter: @zek3r