Program introduces minority kids to mountains
December 12, 2005
VAIL – De’ahzanea Wells of Aurora had never been to the High Country before, and the fourth-grader had a very positive review of the mountains.”They’re huge, it’s cold out here, there are big old slopes and it’s very open with a lot of people,” she said recently during her snowboarding lesson at Golden Peak on Vail Mountain.She said she was planning to come back to Vail next week with her family.That’s one of the goals of the “Alpino” program that brought Wells and her classmates from Eastridge Elementary to Vail – to make repeat skiers and snowboarders out of young people of ethnic minority groups.Vail Resorts has teamed with Alpino to introduce snow sports to kids of minority groups, which are poised to make up a growing part of the nation’s population over the next few decades.The Alpino program brought 4,000 minority kids to ski and snowboard in its programs last season, 2,500 of which were at Vail Resorts mountains, said Alpino founder Roberto Moreno. They are on track for similar numbers this year, Moreno said.Alpino brings children of various minority groups to the slopes, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.This year, Vail Resorts has hired a full-time diversity coordinator, Billy Nowell, a former Breckenridge ski instructor who is now working to help organize the Alpino trips.
A big pushVail Resorts last season became a major partner in the Alpino program. The ski company donates lift tickets, rentals, lessons and lunch for the participants. Alpino programs take place at all four of Vail Resorts’ Colorado resorts: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.Bill Jensen, vice president and chief operating officer of Vail Mountain, volunteered Vail Resorts to take on half of Moreno’s goal of bringing 10,000 minority children to the mountains over two seasons, he said.”The broader cross-section you can expose this sport to, the more chances you have to connect to those people,” Jensen said.About 10 percent of skier visits in Colorado are from minorities, said Dave Belin, director of RRC Associates, a research firm in Boulder. That numbers lags behind the national average of 12 percent, Belin said.The increased popularity of snowboarding and terrain parks has allowed resorts to make a closer connection to urban culture, Jensen said.
“Because of that connection, our sport is much more appealing to urban kids and young adults,” he said. “We’re trying to leverage that position and broaden our base across the ethnic market.”Moreno sees the future of the ski industry in the young people he brings up to Colorado resorts. The percentage of young people from minority groups is increasing across the country, Moreno said. The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, there will be 18 million more minorities than non-minorities under age 35. With total skier numbers stagnant over the last five years, Moreno said ski resorts will need to reach out to those minority groups if they want to increase their customers. An ‘ambivalent electorate’For Moreno, the larger issue is that these minority group will soon become the caretakers of the national lands and parks that make up so much of the High Country. Moreno fears an “ambivalent electorate,” he said. If they don’t understand its value, they won’t feel an obligation to protect it, he said.”Wouldn’t it be sad if in the span of one generation, we blow it, it’s gone?” he said.Alpino has made strides in getting a more diverse workforce at ski resorts. Jensen said he made a commitment to hire a dozen front-line employees at each of Vail Resorts’ mountains at the urging of Alpino.
Moreno has also pushed for more diversity among the people who are depicted on ski resorts’ websites. Vail Resorts responded by posting more pictures of minority families on its sites.Nowell, who is black, grew up in Manhattan. He started skiing at 16 when he began taking bus trips from the city to resorts such as Belleayre in New York and Stowe and Sugarbush in Vermont.His parents thought he was crazy for skiing.”They’d never skied before,” he said. “They said, ‘This is not a normal thing that African Americans do. It’s cold.'”It’s that type of family-history barrier Alpino tries to overcome.Nowell moved to Colorado 14 years ago after he took a job in business development. He worked for several years as a part-time ski instructor at Breckenridge before he took the full-time job as diversity coordinator.He helps organize the Alpino trips, and he continues to teach at the ski school in Breckenridge.