CommunityFeatureNewsYES Operation Snowsports: Engaging Youth in the Outdoors

Ella Hall Ella HallNovember 8, 2021

There’s no denying that participation in a sport like cross country skiing is a privilege, from which many people are excluded. Whether it be the cost of gear, the investment of time, the inability to access a trailhead by public transportation, or simply the lack of representation in the sport, there are a number of significant barriers that would-be participants face. FasterSkier has already highlighted the fact that our sport is disproportionately white, and as one climbs the ladder of competitive youth programming, reaching the upper levels of cross country skiing becomes increasingly out of reach for low-income families.  

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd last spring, many organizations around the nation issued statements and commitments to diversity. One such letter from then President and CEO of US Ski & Snowboard, Tiger Shaw stated, “It is no secret that U.S. Ski & Snowboard and our sports are historically white… and we could use more widespread initiatives for marginalized communities to participate.” 

Charles Harris, an African American alpine ski coach wrote an open letter in response in which one of the many issues he highlighted was the fact that, “we are also in an arms race in this and other sports. There are parents with the ‘country club’ mentality who will spend large sums of money on their child. That gives the impression that someone of modest means cannot afford to compete and that drives away talent.” While Harris was referring to alpine skiing, the same sentiment could be applied to nordic. If the sport and community of cross country skiing is to be more inclusive, then these barriers need to be eliminated. 

This is easier said than done but perhaps starting with kids is the way to approach this task. This is the angle taken by the Youth Enrichment Services (YES) in Boston, who first piloted their cross-country ski program for Boston Youth in 2015. 

Masked up and ready to ski, YES Cross-country ski participants (Photo: YES archives)

YES was started in 1968 by Richard Williams who was driven by his passion for skiing and the idea to “Give Youth a Chance”. What began as Operation Ski Lift (now called Operation Snowsports) in 1970 with 500 youth from low-income families has now grown to include not only alpine but now cross-country skiing as well.

Richard Williams, founder of YES in 1968. (Photo: YES website)

The Nordic program is currently open to Boston children ages 7-12 with a priority focus of reaching youth of color and low-income households. The cross-country program was established to expand winter opportunities for young people to experience outdoor physical activities and is partnered with the Weston Ski Track which is owned and operated by Paddle Boston at the Leo J. Martin Golf Course in Weston, Massachusetts. 

“Cross country skiing is a winter activity that most of our youth don’t normally have access to,” says Bryan Van Dorpe, Executive Director of YES, “Working with local partners we are able to offer the program in a structured setting and introduce young people to a new confidence-building sport.”

When asked about the biggest barriers they have observed to participating in a sport like cross-country skiing, YES staff responded that it is primarily the cost and access to ski gear, as well as the required transportation that are keeping these youth from experiencing the sport. Van Dorpe added, “with all sports at YES, cost is a challenge for things like equipment rentals and time on snow. We have some great partners like Share Winter Foundation and Paddle Boston that provide us with the resources that allow us to get our kids on the snow.” 

Working on that double-pole, YES participant at Weston (Photo: YES archives)

Volunteer recruitment and connecting with the cross-country ski community were also mentioned as possible challenges.  

“The weekday timeframe of 4:30-7 pm isn’t particularly convenient for volunteers who work during the day,” says YES Equipment Specialist & Senior Outdoor Instructor, Elliot Simmons- Uvin. “We are fortunate to have received awesome support from Eastern Mass Cross Country Skiing – formerly known as the Cambridge Sports Union – to provide volunteer instructors and coaches.” Additionally, “getting the YES name known in the cross country ski community could have been a challenge, but friends and partners like NENSA and EXMC have allowed YES to build relationships, gain visibility, and connect with some awesome people,” says Simmons-Uvin. 

Elliot Simmons-Uvin (L) with YES Youth (R) (Photo: YES archives)

Perhaps another barrier to entry in the sport of Nordic skiing is the fact that few people within the country have even heard of it. Though this is beginning to change, the fact remains that when you say the word “skiing”, most people will think of downhill skiing. Within the relatively small world of the YES programs, this is also true. Most YES youth and families are not aware of what cross country skiing is, and only know about downhill skiing. 

“I remember talking to kids in the YES Track & Field Program when we first started the Cross Country Ski Program. They asked me, ‘Is it running with skis on?’ They really had no clue what it was,” shared Van Dorpe. “A few youth may know a little about it, but none have had any experience with it.” 

YES members working on their strides (Photo: YES archives)

In light of this, it can be challenging to build enthusiasm for the program at YES since the kids and their families aren’t familiar with the sport. “Sometimes it’s hard to get kids excited about cross country skiing because most of them haven’t had exposure to it,” says Simmons-Uvin. “Being in the shadows of downhill skiing, you have to work to show kids that cross country skiing is just as cool!” Despite this initial reluctance, Van Dorpe says, “I do think there’s interest there. We have a waiting list every winter.” 

Capacity level is what drives the numbers in the YES programs and so far, the organization has a much larger capacity to introduce youth to downhill skiing and snowboarding. If capacity wasn’t as limited for cross-country skiing, more youth could get involved in the program.

Some happy YES participants (Photo: YES archives)

The role of Operation Snowsports at YES is to fill a huge need and gap within the Boston community for outdoor winter programming. YES shared that 75% of the families they work with reported that these programs are their child’s only access to outdoor winter activities. 

“There are very few opportunities for recreation and physical activity during the winter months for Boston kids besides basketball and hockey,” says Van Dorpe. “There’s a void in Boston and it’s huge in terms of getting kids outdoors.” 

Skiing is more fun with friends (Photo: YES archives)

When asked about the steps that the ski sport community could take to address the lack of diversity (both racial and socioeconomic), Simmons-Uvin said, “as an organization that is intentionally trying to get youth of color outdoors, I think an important step is recreating what our outdoor spaces look like. Representation in the sport for the young people YES serves is few and far between. Having role models that are representative of our youth is essential.” To this end, YES also tries to provide leaders and coaches of color so the youth see and work with adults who look like them. Van Dorpe said, “YES is intentionally part of the solution. We are working hard to create access for traditionally marginalized youth to access the sport and reduce barriers to access.”

All bundled up for some evening skiing (Photo: YES archives)

Looking forward, YES hopes to grow their cross-country program. They are currently exploring options to expand the program to include other skiing locations for informal programming such as Franklin Park in Boston. “For young people at YES, cross-country skiing is a great transition sport and one that definitely has the possibility to grow at our organization!” concluded Van Dorpe. 

If readers wish to support the work that YES is doing, more information can be found at this link.

Ella Hall

Ella Hall

Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.

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