June 05, 1998 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 523 

Sharing the mountains Winter reaches inner city youth By Oona Woods Whistler's wealth is pretty up front. Million dollar homes back onto multi-million dollar homes in an alpine landscape and money almost drips off the hillsides. We live in a town where a swanky two-bedroom house can set you back $999,000 and you'll be looking at the wrong side of 100 grand for a little condo-hotel suite. We have our perennial discussions about affordable housing as people pit their wits against living the dream and avoiding the fiscal nightmare. But people are here because Whistler has a lot to offer. The sport-scene and extensive facilitates happily combine with nature to produce a bubbling vat of benefits, from skiing and snowboarding nine months of the year to white water rafting, hiking, biking and blading. Local extreme free skier Chris Winter is tapping into that vat of benefits to share Whistler's wealth with people that could really use a break. For the last five months Winter has been bringing up homeless and disadvantaged street youth from Vancouver to taste a little bit of the Whistler lifestyle. In conjunction with the Dusk Till Dawn shelter in the city a different group of six or so young people have been coming to Whistler every two weeks, with counsellors, to spend a day on the mountains. People whose situations have led them to the city streets spend each day just trying to get by. When your primary concerns are food, shelter and warmth you do not have the means to break out of the cycle of survival, let alone go snowboarding. Winter set up the Zero Ceiling Youth Discovery Program to give young people living rough a chance to see a little of what life can offer. "Whistler has so much to give, you just have to look around. We can share," says Winter. "My vision was to tie together our different social strands or something deep like that. This is a world-renowned, world-class resort. Bringing disadvantaged youth here works as a kind of recreational therapy. I thought of our recreational facilities and then I thought of the proximity to Vancouver. It's simply sharing with those less fortunate youth. You know how the divisions between the lower class and upper class are becoming more distinct? Well I'm just trying to make that less defined." In setting up Zero Ceiling Winter's mandate is "to provide a positive and active environment for disadvantaged youth as well as promoting opportunity and growth." His second aim is "to unite the community of Whistler, create a positive image and share the world-class resources with less fortunate youth." In the process of setting up this project Winter went to Vancouver and stayed with the street kids for a week. "Everybody has an impression of what street kids are like. You walk down Granville Street and see them all huddled up in their blankets. Some may say that's going too far, but I was lining up for food instead of serving it. That week was interesting to say the least. It can be very loud, there were all kinds of groups of youths. Some alone, some very, very quiet looking in corners. Others were outgoing — it's all these extremes. There were a lot of interesting characters." Dusk Till Dawn's program assistant, Randall Ducharme, says the value of this project can't be measured. "What (Winter's) done is provided us with an opportunity. Not only do we get young people away from Granville Street and the downtown and take them to a real pretty place, we also get out of Vancouver and do something positive, something fun." Dusk Till Dawn is a resource centre for under-21 year olds located in the downtown area of Vancouver. Ducharme says they operate first and foremost as a safe place. They also provide information, referrals and peer counselling. "The safe place is the most important. Somewhere that they don't have to be in survival mode all the time, worrying about the next thing. Five days a week we provide them with a hot meal at night. We're away from all the shit on the street. A lot of people think you have to give them this, that and the next thing. All they need is opportunity. That's all you need to take you out of what you're in. If day in day out you deal with adversity, it's hard to do something other than adversity. These kids are from all over the place — Ontario, Quebec, the US, Van, New West. They all have their own individual story. It's all relative. We all know what pain is. The constant factor with these young people is that there is pain and they're struggling to survive. This (trip to Whistler) can help them numb some pain, feel good and not have to survive." The reaction from the kids at the end of a day of skiing or boarding has been very positive. "Every single one of them came up and shook my hand," says Winter. "They were all really exhausted but they had huge smiles on their faces. Some of these kids are into drugs and one guy said 'I've found my new drug,' after a day of boarding. Another guy said he would love to come and work in Whistler. All of a sudden these kids have another outlet. One day spent in an active, outdoor environment is invaluable for their positive development. If they can get off drugs and get a job then that's the goal of this program." Ducharme says the importance of opportunity can't be underestimated. "What Chris recognized was the value that diversionary things like sports have. You can change a lot of people without doing anything apart from providing them with the opportunity. One day may not seem like a lot but everyone comes away happy, tired and grateful. You've given people a glimpse of whatever else is out there. You're not going to save everybody, but at least they can see what else is out there and just get outta Dodge. At least there's time to feel really good and it isn't subject to their lifestyle. It's investing in things that are constructive and healthy. Just by Chris putting this together — there's been eight trips so far — he's affected over 40 people. If just one makes a change... actually I can say that one has and two or three probably will. I can definitely say that it doesn't hurt. It's all opportunity, just opportunity." Winter is a former top amateur ski racer. He competed in the World Cup of Extreme Free Skiing at Whistler this past season and a couple of years ago did a back flip in the middle of the Couloir Extreme race. He lists his occupation as skier/mountain biker/bricklayer. It has been Winter's own background in sport that has provided the inspiration for this program. "Just basically the sport of skiing, or maybe sport in general has given me such a wide base of knowledge that I can relate it to all kinds of things in life. Because I can it wasn't very hard for me to set this up. I talked to one person and thought 'Holy shit, that was easy' so I talked to another. People want this stuff to happen. The support dictates that it is a good thing to do." As well as providing this program Winter says he's begun to realize the young people might find inspiration in his own actions. "I hadn't really thought about it until one of the counsellors, Alana pointed it out to me. Because I'm fairly well recognized as an athlete, I'm a fairly good role model because I excel at a lot of sports. Maybe that can send a positive message to the youth. I'm only 26. If I can make it happen, they can." Ducharme backs this up. "Chris is really awesome. He came out with us and skied around doing back-flips and stuff. He's a really great guy. The kids all liked him. He treats them like anyone else." So far Whistler has also done a great job of welcoming the young people. Westbeach donated all their gear which, as Ducharme pointed out, means they don't look any different than anyone else in town. "This means they didn't have to worry about being different. They could just be themselves. They go up to Whistler and are treated really well at this world-class resort. They have their boots and boards fitted and they have front-of-line priority because they're with the snowboard school. They feel important, they feel special. When they come home it's almost sad, but what's better? Not getting it at all or getting it for one day?" The town and Intrawest have been completely behind the venture. "I've had a lot of support," says Winter. "Everything has been donated, from the gear to the lift passes. They've been super keen at the snowboard school. They will even do special training for staff. These are youth at risk and disadvantaged youth. It requires special knowledge. We get food donated from the food bank. A lot of people know what I'm doing. There's also been a lot of other support. For example during the winter the group would come off the hill and all go to Mountain World for free play there. That was really neat. Whistler Office Supplies have let me go in there almost every day, Escape Route has donated snowshoes and Summit Ski has helped too." Despite the fact he isn't earning any money from this Winter is now poised to extend the project. "Now I'm creating a summer program. Skiing was easy but there's lots to do in the summer, too: roller-blading, mountain bikes and rafting. I envisage a year round program here. Possibly with overnight stays, or special weekends. We could go horseback riding or something like that. I want to keep it small but efficient. It does nothing but good." Arthur DeJong, the Mountain Planning and Environmental Resources Manager at Whistler/Blackcomb, also runs a summer outreach program for inner city kids. "We are in year two of our program. The summer provides more of an environmental background when the bears are out and other wildlife is out. The mountains are more active and they get a lot of wilderness experience." DeJong says the program to bring disadvantaged youth out of the city gives the kids new directions in life. "We run them through as many different activities as possible hoping that one of them will grab them. We want to give them a reason to live away from all the negative aspects of their lives, the spilt families, the rough corrupt neighbourhoods. Here they have a chance to taste things they’ve never tasted before. If they can latch on to one activity and think to themselves ‘I really wanna get good at this,’ then we will have a positive impact on the inner city youth life experience. It’s very meaningful and positive." Winter is now looking to the community for further support of his non-profit venture. He asks for anyone who has any equipment at all stored away to donate it to help equip the young people when they come to Whistler. "We need boots, goggles, rain gear, socks, T-shirts, shorts, toques, and even sleeping bags, these people really are homeless. There must be so much of this stuff lying around in Whistler basements." If you would like to contact Winter about donations call or fax him at 905-4404.

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