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Originally published Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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SOS program mentors at-risk youth through snow sports

SOS Outreach program helps challenged youth by expanding their outlook to the mountains and ski slopes.

Special to The Seattle Times

Information

To learn how to enlist a child or group in SOS Outreach, or to donate to the program, visit www.sosoutreach.org or contact rgray@sosoutreach.org.

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Scratch the surface of snowboarding's once-rebellious image and you'll often find upper-middle-class roots. Food on the table every night. Little League. White skin.

But Seattle has countless kids who will live their entire lives in view of the Cascades and never once ride a chairlift.

Ramen noodle-consuming ski bums notwithstanding, the opportunity to ride a plastic toy on snow could be a better quality-of-life indicator than stale economic statistics. If getting to school safely is an issue, you probably aren't thinking about the next powder day on the pass.

Local SOS Outreach volunteers know this better than most. Founded in Colorado, the nonprofit SOS Outreach organization began in 1993 as a way to mentor at-risk, low-income youth through snowboarding. Eventually expanding to the Pacific Northwest, the program served 498 kids in the region this past year at Mount Baker, The Summit at Snoqualmie, White Pass and Mount Spokane, in Washington, and at Hoodoo, Mount Bachelor, Mount Hood Meadows, SkiBowl and Timberline Lodge in Oregon.

SOS Pacific Northwest Program Manager Rob Gray says they leave the term "at-risk" deliberately vague.

"It can mean living below the poverty line, being homeless, only having one parent — it runs the whole gamut from needing a little help to needing a lot of help," he says.

Values-oriented fun

Partnered with local youth agencies, homeless shelters and schools, a typical SOS night at The Summit at Snoqualmie begins in a crowded gear room where volunteers help kids pick jackets, pants and gloves from heaping piles for use throughout the five-week Learn-To-Ride program. But these are no tattered hand-me-downs. An assortment of local companies — including K2, POW Gloves, Spacecraft, REI, Evo and Zumiez — all donate outerwear and gear.

Next, kids gather in their instructional groups and get down to the business of learning to ride. However, before hitting the slopes, kids and instructors hold a quick discussion on one of five SOS core values: courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom and compassion.

"They have to write a paragraph on one of the core values and chat about what it means," says SOS instructor Mike Calderon. "That really works well for some of the younger kids."

A Mexican American who grew up in the Los Angeles inner suburb of Compton, Calif., Calderon knows what it's like to come from a tough neighborhood.

"These kids don't feel at ease anywhere. Some of them live in challenged environments where safety is a constant challenge," he says. "We have a very unique opportunity to show them a completely different experience."

Now 53, Calderon's own life took a dramatic turn at 17 when he was introduced to the mountains through a state-run wilderness program.

"When I was an inner-city kid, there was a lot of racial violence. None of us had ever been to the mountains," he says. "It was a fundamentally changing experience. It altered my thought process."

Joining the U.S. Air Force after high school, Calderon was stationed in Colorado, where he developed a skiing addiction.

"I thought it was the greatest thing in the entire world," he says. In his job as a traveling corporate IT consultant, Calderon hasn't skied less than 20 days a year since then.

"I typically try to ski my age," he says.

Sharing skiing with different ethnicities is an important aspect of SOS for Calderon.

"SOS is all about populating the hill with people of color," he says. "One of my greatest dreams was to pay back to a program that helped me."

Street cred on the slopes

SOS snowboard volunteer Jason Balajadia, 35, shares similar sentiments.

"It's my way of paying it forward," he says.

Growing up in Chicago, Balajadia was exposed to gang violence at the age of 7 when his father was killed. Full of anger in his early teens, Balajadia quickly fell in with a tough crowd.

"I began hanging out with gang members," he says. "I was told I was going to get shot when I showed up for my first day of high school."

His mom decided to take action.

"She was done," he says. "We needed to change."

With visions of her children enjoying an outdoors-oriented life free of violence, his mom moved Balajadia and his two siblings to Seattle. Balajadia gravitated toward sports — football, wrestling and track — and then he discovered snowboarding.

"Something was changing in me. I wasn't so angry," he says.

Now a popular personal trainer and fitness coach in Bellevue with two young children of his own, Balajadia jumped at the chance to work with SOS last year.

"I feel like I know where the kids are coming from. They listen when I talk," he says.

As part of the SOS "Sherpa" program, Balajadia's group meets both on and off the snow year-round, participating in community service together.

"They don't have a lot of leadership," he says. "I just want to be a strong male influence to them."

Balajadia points to a youth group leader in Chicago as an adult role model in his rocky adolescence.

"He totally mentored me. He was that male figure I needed," he says.

He can't help but grin when he talks about snowboarding with his group of teenagers.

"I think I get more excited than they do," he says.

John Kinmonth is a Seattle-based freelance writer and snowboarder.

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