Despite temperatures in the sixties and snow that went from icy in the morning to slushy in the afternoon, the spirits were up and the energy was high as Olympian and X-Games gold medalist Gretchen Bleiler joined the youth-development, non-profit organization SOS Outreach for a day of riding at Beaver Creek ski resort on Saturday, March 31.
Playing host to the last of SOS’s five designated ride days, Beaver Creek hosted 142 local Eagle County youth, well-over half of the 255 youth who participate in SOS Outreach’s Eagle Country program. While SOS now has offices dispersed throughout the United States, in addition to an office in New Zealand, the program was founded in Vail Valley in 1993 in Eagle County, Colorado with the aim of keeping youth involved in the community via participation in outdoor activities, in conjunction with a carefully-crafted curriculum that emphasizes SOS’s five core values: courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom and compassion.
Compassion was the core value being emphasized during the ride day with Gretchen, which began with the SOS members dividing up at the base of Beaver Creek into their respective age groups to share what compassion means to them. Each group of kids was led by an adult mentor, or “Sherpa” in SOS speak. Twenty-four year-old Sherpa Austin Herman, who has been a mentor with SOS since September of 2011, stepped aside to share his favorite part of working with SOS: the kids.
“I work mainly with the older kids, from eighth grade and older, and I really do enjoy it,” Herman said. “It’s cool to see what the kids can do in dealing with different social problems, and how to deal with them, by reaching out and helping others through different community service projects. It’s been a really cool experience.”
The feelings are mutual between the SOS’ Junior Sherpas and the youth they mentor, as 13-year-old member David Yeo, who has been a member of SOS for five years, explained, “I really, really enjoy being a member of SOS. I like the leadership skills they teach you on and off the mountain and the community service projects we do.”
SOS’ youth members and mentors, in addition to participating in program days like the ride day with Gretchen, also work on several community service projects throughout the year. Fifteen-year-old Oscar Pilas, who joined SOS when he was in sixth grade, shared more on what kind of projects SOS works on to stay involved with and give back to the community.
“Around Thanksgiving and Christmas time, we work to put together baskets to give to under-privileged families. That’s one of my favorite parts of being a member of SOS—helping others,” said Pilas.
As hard as SOS members like Yeo and Pilas work to stay involved off the mountain, they didn’t waste any time jumping on the lift and heading up the mountain for a blu-bird ride day with Bleiler.
“I’m really excited to get up there! I’m a little nervous about the snow though,” Yeo said before taking to the slopes.
Less than perfect conditions didn’t keep upwards of 140 SOS youth from taking to the hills. While Bleiler opened and closed the ride day with entire group, she spent most of the day riding with the Junior Sherpas group, a group of eight youth, ages 14-18, who are veterans of the program and act as mentors to the younger SOS members.
Bleiler and the Junior Sherpas spent most of the day riding park, giving the Junior Sherpas the chance to show off their skills while taking tips from Gretchen on how to strengthen their riding. While tips from an Olympian never hurt anyone’s technique, the Junior Sherpas weren’t lacking in skills as they flew through the park and worked with Gretchen on everything from ollies to stomping perfect landings,
“I’ve been able to ride with the Junior Sherpas all day and we’ve all been having so much fun,” said Bleiler. “It’s been great!”
Bleiler and all of the SOS crew congregated at the end of the day to from a 150+ person “Circle of Love,” during which all SOS members, Sherpas and Junior Sherpas linked arm-in-arm to talk compassion with SOS Founder and Executive Director Arn Menconi. There was no shortage of enthusiasm, as Menconi tirelessly sprinted around the circle high-fiving as many hands as possible, followed by an extensive picture and autograph session between Bleiler and the kids to close out the day.
As stoked as the SOS youth were to get their helmets and passes signed by a certified Olympian, Bleiler found herself just as stoked on the skills of her adoring fans, on and off the mountain.
“All of these guys are amazing. SOS is doing some amazing things. Just getting involved with SOS today has been an amazing experience,” said Bleiler.
Spread the love and check out SOS Outreach right here.