What started as a snowboarding and skiing teaching program has developed into an international youth development nonprofit organization. SOS Outreach teaches at-risk children not only how to enjoy winter sports, but how to strengthen their communities through service projects and leadership development. The organization has grown, since its inception in Avon in 1993, to extend its influence to 15 other states as well as Canada and New Zealand.
Arn Menconi, of Avon, started snowboarding in the early 1990s and immediately became hooked. He wanted to spread that love to everyone else and was involved in fundraisers for half-pipe competitions and other snow sport events. He was particularly displeased in the seemingly poor reputation of snowboarders at the time.
"Snowboarders were getting a bad rap," he said. "(People) could not get over that snowboarders would want to try to do anything nice for other people. Looking back at it, I just kept feeding into how sanctimonious I thought that was, (and) kept creating things."
Menconi founded the Snowboard Outreach Society (SOS) in 1993.
"We had some kids come up from Denver from an at-risk elementary school. They were just so blown away by the experience that we started creating access for at-risk kids and turned that into a nonprofit," Menconi said.
He started taking children from Denver and nearby counties out onto the mountain to learn skiing and snowboarding. In 1996, SOS Outreach teamed up with Vail Resorts, a partnership which continues today.
"I wanted everyone in the world to learn how to snowboard, especially kids who would never have (had) an opportunity to," Menconi said.
From Menconi's passion came success as the program grew, both in popularity and in size. It wasn't long before SOS Outreach became more than just teaching the basics of snowboarding and skiing down a hill.
"It started to take shape and we realized it was a youth development program," Menconi said. "You want to use it as an opportunity for (kids) to expand their horizons. We started teaching core-value training and inviting the kids back. Now we have in Summit County alone almost 200 kids who come back every year."
SOS Outreach became "a value-based leadership development program," using winter sports like skiing and snowboarding and summer activities such as climbing and camping.
"We're much bigger than snowboarding, we're much bigger than winter sports," said Rob Rumrill, the youth development director of SOS Outreach in Summit County. "We use adventure sports as a hook, to pull them in."
SOS Outreach now offers a handful of different programs for at-risk kids ages 8-18. The Learn to Ride five-day program teaches the basics of skiing and snowboarding. They also are introduced to the first steps of the program's developmental aspect.
"We teach core values," Rumrill said. "Kids are required to come in with a definition of the core value of the day. They can come in with an actual definition, or they come in with a song lyric or a story of how they've seen courage being used. A big thing we just try to emphasize - kids have never been on the mountain before, and with a group of kids they may not know, it takes a lot of courage coming just day one."
Courage on day one is followed by discipline on day two, integrity on day three, wisdom on day four and compassion on day five.
Once a participant has graduated from Learn to Ride, he or she is eligible for the University Program, which uses service projects and workshops to teach and promote leadership skills.
"That's where we really step it up," said Rumrill about the University Program.
The University Program, much like an actual university, takes four years to complete. It begins with service projects around the community such as helping out at the Rotary Club community dinners in Silverthorne and Swan Center Outreach, a program that rescues horses and other large animals. By the third year, participants are required to come up with and execute their own idea for a service project.
"Ideally we're turning them into community advocates as well as leaders," Rumrill said. "At the beginning of the monthly workshops, we're talking about things like issues that they see in their community. You start with a problem, and eventually, by the end of the year, not only do they have a way that they can combat the problem, but then they come up with a service project."
Last year, participants created a seat belt awareness campaign, to remind their peers the importance of wearing seat belts.
"It was very moving," Rumrill said. "It was a really good service program. They did that all on their own."
Originally from Vermont, Rumrill came out to Colorado in 2009 to enjoy the outdoor recreation opportunities. He started as a mentor with SOS Outreach in Avon, then moved on to a program manager position in Seattle for a year. After a few months working in the Tahoe office, he came to Summit County into the position he holds now. He says he couldn't be happier.
"This was really right up my alley with what I wanted to do," he said. "I feel like the most important, the most obvious way to change the world is through youth. It always seemed to me like the most tangible option to make a difference."
Though his duties as program coordinator involve a lot of office time, Rumrill doesn't hesitate when asked what his favorite part of his job is.
"Working with kids. Like, actually working with them," he said. "I have a lot of office time, but when I do things like my workshops it's the best time. Our kids are just so smart, they just work really really hard and I just like having a relationship with the kids. I don't get to have the one-on-one relationships like I used to when I was a mentor, but now I've got more kids that I've got to talk to. My favorite thing is definitely working with the kids."
Menconi estimates that SOS Outreach is currently involved in the lives of 5,000 children. The program has grown in leaps and bounds throughout its 19 years and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.
"It has a way of igniting people in so many different ways, but they ultimately have come together in order to do good," Menconi said. It's harder for other sports to grab them like that, but this one has a certain learning curve and being on top of the mountain and feeling like you're conquering something really translates to your core spirit."