Marking its 20-year anniversary last year, SOS Outreach implemented a new program to expand its services to more participants throughout the year. Now, at the very beginning of its 21st year, SOS Outreach has already seen the success of its expansion. Last week, the organization served more than 1,000 children through 46 different programs at ski resorts in multiple states.
The week was “the biggest one that we’ve had in our 20 years,” said Seth Ehrlich, vice president of operations for SOS Outreach. “It’s very exciting to see.”
SOS Outreach is a nonprofit organization that was founded by Arn Menconi in 1993 to use winter activities to teach underserved youth how to ski and snowboard.
Originally named Snowboard Outreach Society, the organization later changed its name to SOS Outreach and continued to expand its programs. In the beginning, it started by reaching out to at-risk youth in Denver, many of whom had never been skiing or snowboarding before in their lives.
As the program grew in popularity and size, emphasis was split between learning to ski and ride and other outdoor activities, and teaching youth about leadership and character through six core values — courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, compassion and humility — as well as encouraging giving back to the community through projects and volunteering.
Programs available range anywhere from one to two day Adventure Programs, which focus on activities like snowshoeing and rock climbing, and the longer Academy and University programs.
University was SOS Outreach’s first multi-year program, taking 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 the 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.
The latest addition to programming benefits older participants, those who are entering their high school years. Once a participant has completed at least a year of Academy programming and all four years of University, they can graduate into the Masters program.
“We’re now an organization that’s taking kids through an organized program from fourth grade through high school graduation,” Ehrlich said.
The Masters program is also four years long, and focuses on aspects such as developing mentor-based leadership capabilities, communications skills, self-directed goal setting and the ability to take initiative, according to the program description online.
“When they transition to year four of the University (program) and start getting into year one of the Masters, that’s when they start to define their own service projects,” Ehrlich said. “They’re the ones who say, ‘This is what we want to work on.’”
The reason for adding programming, according to Ehrlich, was that results from organization evaluations have shown “increased engagement with our curriculum and positive adult mentorship. The more times that there are those positive touchpoints through the year, the higher our results are, the greater the increase in academics, the greater the increase in attendance, ... and it’s those evaluation results that have driven us to expand the program as much as we can for the participants involved.”
Ehrlich and his colleagues at SOS Outreach are also pleased to be offering a “year-round solution” to participants between the ages of 8 and 18.
“We’re really focused on providing this year-round, multi-year program across service, leadership, development, outdoor activities and the core values,” he said.
One of the big difference between Masters program participants and those at the lower level programs is the ownership the Masters members take in their activities, particularly those related to community service.
A group of Masters kids in Eagle County, for example, are creating a service project that involves raising funds to provide a shelter box — a basic needs kit for war zones — for refugees in Syria.
“It’s all driven by the kids,” Ehrlich said. “That’s where it becomes exciting for us.”
The Masters participants, in particular, have drive because they’ve been involved with the organization for a long time. “They’re the ones who constantly push us,” he added.
It’s also gratifying to see how the participants have learned to give back, said Ehrlich. “It’s just amazing, that interest they are taking in how to make a difference in the community. These are kids, they’re underserved participants. They’re now transitioning from receiving services to providing them.”
A current Masters participants is Marisa Cousino, 16, currently a junior at Summit High School. She began with SOS Outreach’s Learn to Ride program and completed all four years of the University program. She signed up for the Masters program right away.
“I have seen my leadership and speaking skills become more and more concrete as I have been given opportunities to take responsibility of various projects or events,” Cousino wrote in an email. “The benefits I’ve gained from SOS stretch even beyond the parameters of the program as the connections I have made through it provide more opportunities for involvement in the community.”