City street youth have no limits in Whistler
‘Zero Ceiling’ helps reveal character
By Paul Andrew
The many thousands of skiers and riders who headed to Whistler in December included at least four snowboarders who enjoyed an all-expenses-paid visit which included up to five days of snowboard instructor tutoring and a few days of freeriding with expert snowboarders.
They were given three square meals a day, including dinner at Merlin’s Bar & Grill, and stayed at The Aspens.
The pre-requisites for this deal? All the teens had to do was be self-supportive. A few years living on the streets of a major Canadian city was also a condition for this kind of treatment.
What Whistler-Blackcomb is doing with the Dusk to Dawn Resource Centre in Vancouver is exposing teens and young adults to another side of life, one that will take them from the pavement to the powder and reveal a lifestyle kids have dreamed about, but never pursued.
Shelly Grice, 22, was one of four youth who spent eight days on the mountains courtesy of Whistler-Blackcomb. Grice admits she’s a little old for the Zero Ceiling program, but says she has been using the youth centre in Vancouver for two years, so she qualified, but just barely.
So why, at such a relatively late age, did Grice frequent Dusk to Dawn?
"It was a warm meal, a place to hang out," Grice said last week, a day before she was to write her snowboard instructor’s exam. "I was homeless for a while in Ontario, where I’m from. I don’t know why or how I ended up in Vancouver. I just came out here. I am better off than most street youth. But one thing I had to do was fight the courts for welfare while I was going to high school because I had to support myself. And I don’t think that’s been done before in Canada."
Grice was in Whistler with three other youths who qualified for the program. But Janine, James and a third youth preferred to remain anonymous or give first names only for fear of being located by the people who forced them out of the home and into an uncertain life on the street.
"I communicate with my parents now, but they were control freaks when I was young and we had a real personality clash," Grice said. "But I call them now because they are my parents. We’ve just never seen eye-to-eye on anything."
Some unique challenges had to be overcome by the four youth who eventually took the snowboard instructors’ program. Alanna MacLennan, a counsellor who works closely with between 30 and 55 youth each night in the Comox Building at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital, said street youth are nocturnal and must adjust to a regular sleep schedule for a more normal lifestyle. Dusk to Dawn is open 8 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
Only 12 youth applied for the snowboarding program, mainly because snowboarding in Whistler Mountain is as far fetched as summiting Everest to a teenager who can barley get a daily meal.
"They’re in survival mode, and quite often they’re sick from living on the street," MacLennan said. "Actually, we were all sick just before we came up to Whistler last week.
"We do have a lot of kids using the centre but to become part of the (Zero Ceiling) program, you have to be physically and psychologically ready. Most of these kids aren’t thinking about becoming snowboard instructors. They’re thinking about getting they’re next meal. And they are nocturnal — that’s a big thing. We all had to do a sleep-over at the centre to get used to sleeping at night," MacLennan explained.
The four youth who made it to Whistler qualified after showing responsibility around the youth centre while being involved in other programs, MacLennan said. They were accepted after a series of interviews with MacLennan and one other counsellor. The youths had to be thinking about the future, including seeing themselves as instructors on Whistler Mountain. For at least two of the four youths in the first program of the season, that dream may soon become a reality.
"They all passed the course," MacLennan said. "There will be an opportunity for two of them to begin instructing during the Christmas holidays, and they have boyfriends up in Whistler. The other two are planning on coming back after the new year."
Grice said she’s thrilled to have the chance to live the mountain lifestyle, and is not taking any of this experience for granted. She said she knows how fortunate the group is, and that a job with Whistler-Blackcomb is something that won’t be taken lightly.
"My boyfriend is already up here," Grice said. "And I have a bunch of friends up here because I’ve been coming to Whistler for just under a year. We did a lot of snowboarding during the program, and we had a chance to sharpen our skills before the instruction started, but we also studied at night, just to be sure. But I am hoping to get a job over Christmas so I can start living here full-time."
MacLennan said Powder Resort Properties supplied the lodging for the Zero Ceiling Youth Program because Whistler-Blackcomb employee housing was full. She said the eight days lodging at The Aspens was greatly appreciated by the youth.
Hugh McKay and Bruce Irving from the Whistler-Blackcomb Ski and Snowboard school co-ordinated the youth’s snowboard schooling on the hill.
Chris Winter, a supervisor at Extremely Canadian and a pro skier for The Head Freeskiing Team, has co-ordinated the Zero Ceiling Street Youth Program since January of 1998, and has had some 150 youth go through the program since it was created. Winter, who is also a freelance journalist, says three Zero Ceiling satellite programs in Canada and one in Australia are up and running.
Whistler-Blackcomb and Showcase Snowboards provided instructors, lift-passes and equipment for the youth in the Whistler program.