Orwell students hit the slopes
ORWELL/MENDON — On a snowy Friday in early March, Orwell Village School sixth-grader Jacob Clifford sits on a chairlift at Pico Mountain in Mendon. Normally, he’d be in math class at around this time, but on this day he’s mastering a jump in Pico’s terrain park.
Math is Clifford’s favorite subject, but when asked if he’d rather be skiing, he flashes a toothy smile and nods.
For students at the school, Fridays this winter have been good days. At 10 a.m., while most other kids their age around the country are writing papers and balancing equations, all 120 of the Orwell youngsters file out of their classrooms and grab seats on three big yellow school buses. The buses take off, charging through the snow-covered hills, and arrive at Pico an hour later. The rest of the day is devoted to skiing.
To Vermonters, a school-run ski program might not seem special. Schools all over the state dedicate a weekday to on-mountain learning, or provide free season passes to students who make the honor roll.
But in Orwell, the three-year-old ski program required a massive fundraising effort. Of all the schools in the state, Orwell probably travels the farthest to reach the mountain. For the parents and teachers, watching the kids carve turns every Friday feels like a small miracle.
“It’s community-driven,” said Orwell Village School Principal Patrick Walters. “It was created by the community, because they wanted to give kids a chance who would have never otherwise gotten to go to the mountain. To think about a child who would grow up near the mountain and never get a chance to go — that was kind of the impetus for pushing this program forward.”
When they reach the mountain, the kids take over an entire floor of the lodge. They scarf down sandwiches and bottled water before breaking up into small groups according to their skiing or riding ability. The groups are all color-coordinated using distinctive, patterned pennies.
With her newborn in a carrier on her back, parent Stefanie Wilbur, who spearheaded the program, stands outside the lodge and directs kids to their lessons. She seems to know every child, parent and teacher by name.
“Stefanie is incredibly organized with getting the kids into groups according to age and ability,” said Brenda Welch, head of the Junior Explorer program at Pico. “Nothing gets by Stefanie. She’s so on top of everything — there’s just nothing that has not been taken care of.”
By 12:30, gaggles of teens and pre-teens linger at the base of the mountain, skis and boards at the ready, waiting for their instructors to appear so they can begin a 90-minute lesson. Soon, they’re off, and the chaperones and teachers, wearing giant smiles, wait at the bottom of the hill to cheer the kids after each run.
“Orwell is an agricultural town,” Wilbur said during a quick break in Pico’s lodge that Friday. “It’s beautiful, it’s vast, it’s far from everything. It’s 30 minutes to the grocery store, and we love that. But we are not a skiing community, and to open these kids up to it is just awesome.”
That’s why, in November of 2015, Wilbur pitched the idea to the school board. She had already called around to different ski resorts to see which program was most feasible. She found Pico, whose program includes a 90-minute lesson, a lift ticket and rentals for $10 per child per day — $60 per child for the program’s six weeks.
“It’s like a gift,” Wilbur said.
“Pico does make every effort to make the program affordable,” said Pico’s Welch.
Seven schools in central Vermont are enrolled in Pico’s Junior Explorer Program this year, and six more are interested in joining in next season, Welch explained. “Because of the affordability, a lot of the schools use it as an extension of their physical education,” she said.
In total, with busing, Wilbur figured the program would cost $11,000 per year. The board said she could do it, as long as she could raise the money.
That was in November of 2015. By Christmas, the money was raised. By February, at no cost to families, the kids were on the mountain.
“I called everybody I knew,” Wilbur said with a laugh. “Everybody I have ever known. Every cousin, every uncle, every co-worker, any business, I just cold-called. The First National Bank of Orwell made a very large, generous donation. Stonewood Farms made a large donation. But other than those two, it was anywhere from $5 to $60.”
Wilbur, who runs a dairy farm, (the mother of three is also a full-time home hospice nurse), also called all of her farm’s service providers — from the fencing company to the farm supply company — and all of them donated.
“All you have to say is, ‘I want to get kids skiing,’ and they’re like ‘absolutely, how can I help?’” she said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
The program’s first year was a success. Almost every student in the school, kindergarteners through eighth-graders, skied, and those who didn’t traveled to the mountain anyway and did homework with chaperones in the lodge. The teachers came in shifts on alternating Fridays, while the rest used the days for in-service training.
For the 2017 spending year, the Orwell School Board decided to help fund the program. They covered $4,000 — the cost of transportation. For the remaining $7,000, the newfound Booster Club got creative. They started a now-annual golf tournament, and they auctioned off Adirondack chairs that the kids painted. Those fundraisers now bring in plenty of money, which the club uses to supply neck warmers and snacks to kids at the mountain.
For the 2017-2018 school year, the town voted to include the entirety of the program’s cost in the school budget. And on Town Meeting Day two weeks ago, residents voted yet again to fund the program for 2018-2019.
“Nobody bats an eye,” Wilbur said. “The town loves the program; the kids love the program. There’s just so much support.”
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