Steamboat Springs Alejandra Solis twisted in her seat and turned her gaze up Mount Werner to the ceiling of low clouds that obscured the Thunderhead building. As the gondola car rose through the atmosphere, the fog cleared and a building, a destination, came in to view.
“We’re in heaven,” she said.
It was the first gondola ride for the girls, who were part a group of about 15 students who traveled to Steamboat with the Colorado Uplift mentoring program in Denver.
It was the first time for a lot of things.
Many members of the group never had snowboarded, been to Steamboat, left Denver or soaked in a natural hot spring. They didn’t know about man-made snow or whether avalanches would be a concern at the base of the Christie Peak Express. But they faced their firsts head on with smiles and giggles punctuated by moments of excitement and fear.
It’s a far cry from South Federal Avenue and Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, where these students spend most of their days, but it's an invaluable experience according to Uplift area director Pami Perea.
“It’s getting to see that there’s more to life,” Perea said. “Inner city kids don’t get out of their neighborhoods. We show them possibilities.”
Colorado Uplift, a Denver nonprofit aimed at empowering urban youths with leadership skills and strong character values, served nearly 5,000 youths this year. The program helps students in fourth grade through when they're filling out college applications. When it comes to college applications, Perea said she reminds the students of the resiliency they've shown on the slopes, fighting through frustrations and thoughts of "I can't."
The trip began about six years ago after Ed McLaughlin, president of oil and gas company Enerplus USA and a part-time Steamboat resident, spoke at a Colorado Uplift event.
A graduate of Lincoln High School himself, McLaughlin wanted to give back to the school from which he came. He wanted to be part of showing the students possibility, opportunity and the joy of the mountains.
“I was so taken by the stories, the adversity they come from,” McLaughlin said. “But they don’t feel sorry for themselves. These kids really are my heroes.”
McLaughlin welcomes the students into his second home, pays for their food and any extras the youths might need.
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. provides lift tickets and instructors for the weekend, and Pioneer Ridge offers two large condos for the students. Powder Tools gave the group free rentals from head to snow.
Many of the students never have had a group meal in a house let alone stayed in a mountainside condo.
Perea said the students ran up and down the condo complex stairs, giggling and in awe of their surroundings.
As they sat at the top of the magic carpet slope next to the Christie Peak Express on Saturday morning, several Lincoln High girls reminisced about a three-hour outdoor hot tub session the night before. They had laughed and sang, and the boys made fun of them, Eleah Rodriguez said.
“It was the coolest thing,” she said. “Our hair had icicles in it.”
As they skidded, slid and fell off their boards in the beginner area, they talked about their futures and dreams of becoming a dental hygienist, a writer, a cook, an educator or joining the military.
“Firsts show growth,” said Kevin Byerley, Uplift director of staff operations. “Walls break down. When walls break down, that’s when life change happens.”
Candise Romero, now a junior at the University of Northern Colorado, said she might be on a different path if she hadn’t become part of Colorado Uplift late in high school. She might have continued doing drugs, she said, or she might have ended up an addict like her mother. But she and her sister, Nicki, a senior in high school, gained mentors through Uplift who taught them to face their problems and lead authentic, healthy lives. They also learned to love snowboarding.
Now, Romero wants to pass on those lessons as a mentor herself.
“There’s a lot of people out there struggling with life,” she said. “They need that person to show them this is a healthy way to live life.”
Romero said she thinks about the Uplift students as soldiers, as an army. They go out, they fight their own battles and have their own trials.
Then, on occasions like the Steamboat trip, they get to “come home.”
“We come together, and we’re reuniting and reaffirming our love,” she said. “It reminds you you’re not alone.”
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com