Before he learned how to chill on the snowboarding hill, Alex Leeson was taking his life in his own hands.
A couple of high-speed wipeouts convinced the Prince George teen there's a better way to learn the fine art of surfing on snow, and it was about that time he learned about Chill, a program that teaches the sport to disadvantaged youths.
"I almost broke my neck twice," smiled Leeson. "I was going out of my comfort zone without knowing what to do.
"Before I came to the program I was just sliding down Easy Rider and by the end of it I was sliding down Ole Grandad. They've got great instructors here and they taught me how to carve."
The free lessons are open to kids aged 10-18, identified for the program by 10 local service agencies, including Northern Health, School District 57, Active Family Resources, Intersect, and Northern Star.
Leeson, who turns 17 in March, now has a part-time job as a lift operator at Tabor Mountain ski resort and he's working towards his Level 1 certification as a snowboard instructor in the Chill program.
"Some of these kids have a troubled past but they come out here and have fun on the hill and it's just like a little reprieve," said Leeson. "That's the great aspect of this program. They can come here and forget about their problems."
Before he joined Chill, 16-year-old Darcy stopped snowboarding at age 13 after suffering his third concussion while racing his friends on the hill. Although it is a difficult sport to learn, he's surrounded by qualified instructors at the Chill sessions, the first time he's ever had such an opportunity.
"This program is awesome, I like how everybody gives up their time to help all of us and support all the kids," said Darcy. "I like that it's all sponsored."
Trenton Laarz, 18, is trying to quit smoking and heard about Chill through his Northern Health tobacco reduction counsellor, who suggested he get involved in more activities to keep his mind off cigarettes.
"Everybody is really friendly, you get to meet some cool people," said Laarz. "They're teaching us slowly and everybody can move along at your own pace.
"I always wanted to snowboard but I couldn't get into because you have to buy a snowboard and a hill pass. This is a really good program."
Chill is offered on six consecutive weekends until the end of February. Diversified Transportation donates the bus and driver that picks up the kids downtown on Saturdays and Sundays and drops them at Tabor Mountain, 18 kilometres east of the city.
Program co-ordinators Meredith Bogle and J.P. Palmer seem to have great rapport with the kids and start them on the lower slopes of Tabor by teaching them how to lead with the front foot to flex the board and initiate a turn. By the end of the six weeks, most will be confident enough to go to the top of the lift.
"It's a fantastic program because it gives people an opportunity who wouldn't get the chance to come out to a ski hill, said chaperone Julia Klassen, a second-year CNC social work student and neophyte snowboarder, who is serving her practicum helping out with Chill. "It teaches them life skills and persistence. You have to keep trying. They more you fall, the more you have to get up."
Chill is now available in 14 locations in North America. Prince George has been involved program since 2004, joining Toronto and Vancouver as the only Canadian cities. It began as an after-school program in Burlington, Vt., founded by Jake and Donna Carpenter, owners of Burton Snowboards, which have supplied cash and equipment to the Prince George Chill program.
"Our mission statement is to provide opportunities for at-risk and under-served youth to build self-esteem and life skills through board sports," said Deane Calcagni, the Vermont-based national manager for the Chill Foundation, who made the trip to Tabor Mountain to watch the kids in action Saturday.
"Probably the largest single factor you see in our kids is poverty. We work with kids in group homes and kids dealing with addiction and from juvenile justice programs. Snowboarding is not a cheap sport to get into and this is 100 per cent free. It's such a powerful experience for many of them, taking them out of the community that they're in every day and bringing them up to the mountain to give them an opportunity they normally wouldn't have."
The group's gear space storage area on Fifth Avenue also serves as a gathering spot, with couches and a TV so Chill kids can watch snowboard videos while get fitted for gear before boarding the bus. There's enough equipment and clothing to outfit 60 kids, as well as volunteers and chaperones, who work with the kids regularly as youth counselors.
"The hope is that, if someone is working with a drug and alcohol counsellor in a different environment, rather than an office, it's a vehicle to build a stronger relationship with their service provider," said Bogle.
Burton plans to expand the scope of the Chill program to include skateboarding, which would could result in a warmer-months program for Prince George, based at the Rotary Skateboard Park at Carrie Jane Gray Park.
"We want to be able to serve kids year-round, instead of just a six-week winter program," said Calcagni.