We give the Mountain pulpit to executive director Arn Menconi.
I grew up on Chicago's South Side in the 1960s. The first black family to live on my block took shotguns off the moving truck to let all the white neighbors know not to blank with them. The Vietnam War was going full tilt, and the hatred and racial tension between whites and blacks in Chi-Town was scary.
A trip to Colorado with my high school ski club showed me something different. By 1993, I was living in Beaver Creek, a newly hired snowboard instructor. In Beaver Creek and Aspen, the homeys were fighting over who was more rad: skiers or snowboarders. I had moved as far away from the problems of the real world as possible. But 5,715 kids in America were killed by handguns that year.
It was a haunting dualism: I was this white guy from the hood. What was I doing in the woods? There are 74 million kids in America; one in five live in poverty. I was moved to challenge the status quo, and SOS was born. What started as a way to get underprivileged kids to see the mountaintop has turned into core values training. SOS teaches courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, and compassion. We teach that leaders change things; they right wrongs. The goal is to keep kids in year-round, multi-year outdoor programs with service projects, peer mentoring, and leadership workshops. SOS works in 15 states and New Zealand, and uses snowboarding, skiing, backpacking, and rock climbing as learning platforms. Last year, 5,000 kids went out on 20,000 activity days.
Recently, I took two SOS students to Washington, D.C. They met with Senators, Representatives, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to lobby for more access to the outdoors. They told stories of how the outdoors made them better people and how experiential learning gave them lifelong skills.
I started SOS because I saw injustice and wanted kids to have fun. But when I walked up the steps of the U.S. Capitol with those students, I was witnessing them carrying the torch for social justice. What matters is that something is happening that positively affects the lives of kids growing up in neighborhoods like the South Side, where decades of crime and poverty make it seem like there's no way out; like there are no mountaintops.
To find out more please visit: sosoutreach.org. From the Winter 2012 issue. Subscribe today, get the magazine at the iTunes store, or find Mountain at Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Gander Mountain, and other natural foods and outdoor stores.