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A Warm Winter Welcome

April 27, 2021

On a sunny Sunday morning in early March, eleven youth boarded a bus at the YMCA of Greater Flint. On a standard ski day, the bus would be bound for Mt. Holly, their home mountain, for lessons and night skiing. Nestled near 1-75 between Detroit and Flint, Mt. Holly provides many Michigan youth and adults with their first taste of the slopes. The YMCA, with help from the Share Winter Foundation and the Michigan Snowsports Industry Association (MSIA), established their youth ski program at Mt. Holly in 2020. 

On this particular day, however, the kids took off on a new adventure. Instead of turning towards Mt. Holly, the bus drove towards Crystal Mountain near Thompsonville, three hours north of Flint.

Their chaperone, Jalen Nunn, Senior Program Director of the Y Safe Places Program at the YMCA of Greater Flint, isn’t a skier.  As he has watched these youth fall in love with the sport over the last two years, however, his view of skiing has changed.

Youth Skiing “I didn’t have a perception of winter sports growing up,” he reflected. “I’m still a ‘never-ever’... that made last winter that much more magical for me, for lack of a better phrase. To see these kids naturally picking it up, some of them being super good at it, and some of them not liking it at first but now saying, ‘When can we go back?’ makes me think I might be missing out on something magical too.”

Marco Dedenbach, Director of the Crystal Community Ski Club’s Master the Mountain program, first connected with Jalen during a Race Equity training provided by Share Winter, evo, and RisewithKJ. Marco is a skier. In fact, Marco learned to ski at Mt. Holly at ten years old. The two leaders met via breakout room introduction and connected over their mutual Michigan location. Then they hatched a plan for their programs to meet up and ski. Together, they envisioned a day for the Michigan youth from both programs to build relationships over their shared passion for snow sports.

Creating opportunity is easier with a few helping hands. Relying on the Share Winter network and their community ties, Jalen and Marco worked together to secure lift tickets, rentals, and instruction so that the youth from Flint could join the youth at Crystal Mountain for a day on the slopes. An established network and strong partnerships with Crystal Mountain, Share Winter, and MSIA allowed the leaders to focus on handling logistics.

Instruction “We were feeling support from all these different directions and that meant we could focus on our kids, what they needed, and what the day was going to look like,” Marco explained. “We weren’t burning up a lot of time trying to hustle for money and resources to make it happen.”

Jalen elaborated that knowing each partner and organization “approached [the field trip] thinking about the kids specifically” felt critical. “We’ve been part of things where the program suffers because everyone in it wasn’t in it for the right reasons,” he said. He emphasized a value of his work at the YMCA of Greater Flint is to help every kid have a positive experience every day. It was mission critical to ensure everything went smoothly and for the field trip to focus on the youth first.

Marco had similar goals for his own group of youth, noting, “We wanted kids who might not ever meet to get together and just share something that they love.”

On that Sunday morning, with six hours of round trip driving ahead, Jalen and the YMCA’s youth started out early. The youth taking the field trip arrived on time and great weather made for a beautiful drive. It was calm and sleepy on the bus that morning. Not until Crystal Mountain came into sight did the youth perk up and appear excited. Jalen felt hopeful for a great day on the slopes.

Upon arriving at Crystal Mountain, a group of instructors roughly the same age as the group from the YMCA greeted the incoming bus. As part of Crystal Mountain’s Junior Instructor Program, approximately five youth, ages fourteen to sixteen, participated in training from the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), another Share Winter Partner. Marco worked on the Junior Instructor program for three years and anticipated his crew of well trained youth would be the perfect ambassadors for the day. Marco’s instincts were right. “When my kids met the kids from up North,” Jalen said, “you would’ve thought they knew each other already the way they clicked.” 

Ski Break Earlier in the season, Mt. Holly’s logistics collaboration, night skiing program, and enthusiastic instructors made after-school skiing a possibility for the YMCA of Greater Flint. “For Mt. Holly to accommodate us is amazing in and of itself,” Jalen said, noting the mountain’s central location and popularity. 

For the youth who previously learned during chilly Michigan nights, the thirty-four degree, spring-like sunshine of the Crystal Mountain field trip was an extra bonus. Both leaders attributed the great weather to part of the day’s success, with Marco noting their luck - it had been raining only a few days prior.

The group of youth started their day in the Crystal Mountain conference room, saying hello and fitting their rentals. Then, with support of adult teams from both programs, they stepped out onto the sunny slopes. The group spent an hour on the lower angle runs as they familiarized with the mountain, then joined the regularly scheduled ski lessons held by Crystal Community Ski Club that afternoon.

As Jalen anticipated, YMCA youth and six-year-old “speed demon” Alijah took full advantage of the opportunity to show his skills and confidence. Alijah soon led the group, and his instructor, around the mountain. When asked about the best part of the day, Alijah said, “The best part was I got to go down the big hills.”

“A lot of the kids made improvements that day. They had a blast just being on a different mountain, it being a different time of day,” Jalen said. ”Of course I’m going to brag on my kids,” he also noted. “I think the trip speaks to the kids’ willingness to learn something new. Even the ones who were scared, they still got out there and made great things happen.”  

It was also important for the youth from both groups to meet peers equally in love with the sport. For the teenagers, such as the YMCA’s Aaliyah, watching the PSIA Junior Instructor program in action opened a new possibility for her own skiing interests. When asked about the day, Aailyah reflected, “The best part of the field trip was knowing that my instructors had the confidence in me to help me do things I had never done before.” Just two years into skiing at Mt. Holly, Aaliyah already received her all area pass. Now, she had a chance to try out her skills on a new mountain and realize that she too could become an instructor.  

“Our kids got to see the Junior PSIA instructors and they got to see fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year old girls that are instructors,” Jalen said as he described the day. “They had never seen that before. I hadn’t, they hadn’t, it was so cool.”  Next year, Share Winter hopes to help the YMCA youth start or join a Junior Instructor program at Mt. Holly.  

From the youth, to the staff and volunteers, to Jalen and Marco, everyone agrees that the collaboration between the two programs should be an annual event. The field trip also generated ideas for future partnerships across the winter sports industry. Jalen is excited to see the YMCA of Greater Flint continue growing the winter sports options for youth as they progress from beginners to experts. He also sees potential for expanding the YMCA learn to ski and ride program to other nearby YMCAs. Marco is dedicated to continuing to build relationships with Michigan communities adjacent to the Crystal Community Ski Club’s programs.

Share Winter Foundation is proud to support leaders and inter-industry relationship building that helps support opportunities like this one. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to a successful collaboration. Each community and leader will approach this type of innovation with different needs and tactics. Jalen and Marco, and their respective programs, offer an inspiration and starting point for how our industry collaborates and moves forward in breaking down barriers for youth.


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