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Skiing

Ski 4 Kids is a good chance for all youngsters to try cross-country skiing

Ira Edwards assists Scout Gramse, 8, as she slides on the snow on a nordic sit-ski on March 5, 2016, at Ski 4 Kids. By showing able-bodied youth adaptive gear, Edwards hopes to create understanding and appreciation for disabled athletes. Edwards' community outreach program “Team Gimp Squad” has donated eight nordic sit-skis to the Anchorage School District.

Way back, when our son was beginning to resist being schlepped around Alaska’s outdoor spaces in a carrier and before his feet grew bigger than our budget and his endurance outmatched mine, we always took him to Ski 4 Kids at Kincaid Park.

An annual event since 1995, Ski 4 Kids promotes nordic skiing and outdoor play in the winter, and it provides opportunity. We were still newbies to Alaska and the state’s enthusiasm for cross-country skiing, but we had read about the event in the newspaper and figured it would be a good way to gauge our family’s interest.

Only 3 at the time, our toddler wore tiny little skis that strapped to his snow boots and hustled happily around the different activity stations with kids both his age and twice that. He became frustrated only once, when the ski race started and he, saddled with obviously inferior equipment for such an important competition, turned to my husband and said “Daddy, these skis won’t GO FAST!”

For years we joined hundreds of other kids, parents and community sponsors for a few hours of fun on skis. Heck, we even volunteered to announce the races once or twice, listening to shouts of glee from kids crossing the finishing line, their voices louder than the soundtracks of popular movies thumping in the background.

Ski 4 Kids is a collaboration, the brainchild of a teacher at Mountain View Elementary and the product of a dedicated staff at Anchorage Parks and Recreation.

The whole thing started when Holly Hill, a third-grade teacher and a ski coach with the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage (NSAA), wanted to provide her students with a ski experience but had no resources to do so.

“I wanted my students to have the same chance to enjoy the outdoors and skiing as other kids,” she said. “The idea to create a fundraiser for other low-income schools grew along with our program at Mountain View.”

A small committee formed and started making plans to create a day of ski-based family activities at Kincaid, with donations in lieu of formal registration, Hill said. It was a hit almost immediately.

That first event brought enough money to support Hill’s class, and then others, within the framework of the municipality’s Ski Outreach program, a school-based, grant-funded way to put more kids on nordic skis. Ski 4 Kids proved to be the perfect platform for development of the project.

To date the Outreach program includes almost 20 elementary, middle and high schools in the Anchorage Bowl. One of the current beneficiary schools is Williwaw Elementary, where assistant principal Mara Rosenthal’s after-school ski club is thriving with 25 students.

“Usually our students have never skied before, with most from low-income families,” she said in an email. “Many of them are also immigrants from hot countries, and they are always excited to learn a sport they wouldn’t be exposed to outside of school.”

Williwaw’s success stems from a longtime relationship with the Ski Outreach program — eight years, to be exact. Located down the street from Russian Jack Springs Park, one of Anchorage’s most popular nordic skiing venues, the school took regular field trips to the park to borrow ski gear from Parks and Recreation, learned the necessary skills and then swarmed the groomed trails.

The program was so popular that Rosenthal and a fellow teacher began exploring ways to purchase their own equipment. Recipients of a grant through the Ski 4 Kids-Ski Outreach funds, Williwaw now offers twice-weekly, after-school skiing at Russian Jack and the physical education teacher has implemented skiing into the curriculum, with grades 2-5 now participating.

Williwaw’s skiers will also attend this year’s 2019 Ski 4 Kids. They’ll get bused to Kincaid Park along with other Title 1 schools thanks to funds from Healthy Futures, another organization dedicated to kids and physical activity.

For Rosenthal, a skier herself, the rewards are limitless.

“We have middle school students return to Williwaw to help teach,” she said. “And our kids are always willing to make the most of (Alaska’s) snow and cold. During ski season students always ask if ‘today is a ski day.’ ”

Erin Whitney Witmer is a parent and the coordinator of the Ski 4 Kids. She says the day is a perfect way to connect as a community while encouraging kids of all ages and economic backgrounds to give nordic skiing a try.

“The kids are experiencing a fun day of play in the outdoors, some of them for the first time,” she said as we sat in a coffee shop comparing notes from previous Ski 4 Kids celebrations.

Even though their parents may not always attend with them (most bused kids are chaperoned by teachers and coaches) the students, many of whom are just learning the ropes of skiing, are sending an important message about spending time outside.

“The feedback loop from skiing at school to skiing on local trails and sharing the experience with family or friends is tremendous,” Witmer said, adding that over the years more than 7,000 Anchorage students have benefited from grant funding since Ski 4 Kids began.

To enter their kids, parents and guardians pay what they are willing or able to (the recommended amount is $20 per child). Businesses donate in-kind goods and services as well as cash to keep the program thriving.

“We raised just over $10,000 for the 2018 event through corporate sponsorships, registrations and merchandise sales,” Witmer said.

When: Noon-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23. Races — one timed, one untimed — begin at 1:30 p.m.

Registration: Sign up in advance on the NSAA website or on the day of the event at the Kincaid Chalet (timed racers need to sign up online to make sure bibs are assigned properly).

What to expect: Most of the events will be staged in the Kincaid stadium area and surrounding trails, and Witmer promises all kinds of snow-themed activities like fat-tire biking, a kid-themed mock biathlon range, orienteering and an obstacle course. All racers will get a medal from Healthy Futures and some swag from sponsors.

Equipment: If you need skis, poles or boots, arrive at the chalet well before noon so you can borrow gear from Parks and Recreation.

Grant information: Witmer encourages all Anchorage schools to apply for the 2019 Ski Outreach grant. Awards range from $500-$2,000. Applications are due online or at the NSAA office by March 15.

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publishes the website AKontheGO.

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