Keystone: SOS Outreach marks 15 years of service |

Keystone: SOS Outreach marks 15 years of service

KEYSTONE ” SOS Outreach started in part as a way for a 30-something snowboard instructor who grew up in the South Side of Chicago to shed some guilt over living large in the Vail Valley.

The nonprofit group now exposes underprivileged kids to mountain sports and uses the outdoors to promote values like courage, integrity and compassion. SOS Outreach, previously known as the Snowboard Outreach Society, is marking its 15th season Saturday.

“You have a moral responsibility to give back when you live in a place as rich, both naturally and financially, as the Vail Valley,” said founder Arn Menconi.

Menconi said he wanted to get snowboarders together to do something nice while also getting city kids who otherwise wouldn’t have learned to ride to the mountains.

SOS brought its first Denver school group to the mountains in 1994. It now operates at more than 40 resorts in eight states, and its activities include rock climbing, camping and community service.

Last season, SOS served about 3,000 kids, ages 8 to 18. About three-fourths were minorities, 70 percent were from households with incomes of $40,000 or less, and one in four was from a single-parent family.

“It’s critical for the industry to reach out and broaden the constituency as much as possible,” Vail Resorts Inc. CEO Rob Katz said Friday. “It provides an opportunity for people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to come to the mountain. But it’s also good for business. It expands the number of people who are introduced to the sport and allows them to grow up and become more passionate about the sport.”

With childhood obesity rates rising, it’s important to get kids outdoors, Menconi said. Inspiring them to serve others isn’t so bad either.

“The mountaintop experience is a carrot to kids to learning a lifestyle of giving back,” Menconi said.

SOS Outreach volunteer Gaby Hernandez, now 20, was 12 years old and spoke no English when she learned to snowboard with the group. Her family had moved to Vail from Mexico City seeking a better life. Her bus passed Vail Mountain on her way to school, but Hernandez figured she’d probably never be able to afford a lift ticket or equipment to learn to snowboard.

Then a middle school teacher introduced her to SOS.

“I thought it was the greatest thing ever,” said Hernandez, who now mentors kids in the program. “There’s no words to describe how much I appreciate SOS and how much I love the program.”

She attends Colorado Mountain College and hopes to become a pathologist. She said she plans to volunteer with SOS as long as possible.

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