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Snowboard camp teaches abused children to get back up

 

By Andrew Mitchell

When you're learning to snowboard, the ground is never very far away.

Although an instructor can walk and talk you through the art of linking turns, in the end it is you and you alone who has to gather up the courage to let go of your edge and point the board downhill. When you fall, it is you alone who has to get back up again.

And when you succeed — carving one arc after another down the slope — the sense of accomplishment, of empowerment, and of exhilaration is all yours as well.

For a teenager who was born into an abusive family and displaced into protective group homes, this quintessential snowboarding experience is a step into a larger, kinder world where "anything is possible if you're willing to work for it," says Heidi Landau, executive director and founder of camp CARE Snowboard Camps.

"These are kids who live in group homes, who don't feel they have a lot to look forward to," says Landau. "They get good grades, they are non-youth offenders — they're basically good kids who have had no real chances in life."

In the U.S., 15 out of every 1,000 children are removed from abusive homes. Another 300,000 will take to the streets each year to escape. According to Child Protection Services, some 3 million people suffer from the damaging effects of abusive relationships.

Although no national or provincial statistics are available for Canada, Landau believes that this is going to become an increasing problem in Canada, following the pattern of the United States.

With a large number of those children developing into juvenile and adult offenders, Landau believes that programs like camp CARE can make a real difference. Some of the older campers have even been offered Level I courses and jobs at ski resorts when they complete high school — many abused children lose the protection of group homes and treatment centres when they turn 18. "Where do you go from there?" asks Landau.

Founded in 1997, camp CARE is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that takes 75 kids, aged 12 to 18, into the mountains every year. Each camper is given snowboard equipment and clothing, which is theirs to keep, and lessons by volunteer instructors. As they progress over the following few days, they are paired off with pro riders who can help them crank things up a notch.

Shawn Palmer and Jim Rippey, two of the biggest names in snowboarding, are volunteers for the American camp CARE program, as are pro riders Megan Pischke, Terry Dakides, Jason Brown, Barrett Christy, Jason Chatfield and a host of others.

"I've been in the ski and then snowboard industry for a long time," says Landau. "I got to know a lot of the big professional athletes over the years, so it was easy to get in touch with them. Snowboarding has grown so fast and has become so good for these guys that they were excited for the opportunity to give something back.

"A lot of these guys have seen the other side of life as well — they haven't always been superstars. A lot of them had hard childhoods and felt bad about themselves until they were lucky enough to catch onto snowboarding. They're young, they're awesome riders and great role models for kids who don't have a father or mother around to look up to."

This year there will be four camps in the U.S. and two in Canada: one for second-year American campers at Whistler-Blackcomb Jan. 22-23, and the first-ever camp for Canadian kids at Mount Seymour Feb. 8-14. First-year camps are 5-6 days long and second- and third-year camps take place over a weekend.

"We're going to try to get some more Canadian camps going next year. The response from kids and volunteers has been so overwhelming," says Landau.

"It's a small thing, but it comes from the heart. We've seen it turn a child's life around in the week that we're with them. We've seen what the camps can do for the kids, and that's why people believe in the program."

Among the Canadian pro riders volunteering for the program are Derek Heidt, Devun Walsh, Kevin Sansalone, Shin Campos, Shandy Campos, Marc Morisset, Allan Clark, Kevin Young, Risto Scott, Dennis Bannock, Jamie Parker and Rob Dow.

In addition to the pros, the camp CARE team is made up of a strong group of Whistler locals, including Marc-Andre Tart, Josh Smith, Ben Davies, Sarah Fennell, Caine Heintzman, Andy Cantelon, Danielle Piche, Jibber Godboot, Chewy Cousins, Jeremy Shelford, Andrew Payne and Oliver Roy.

"It's just a good idea to get these kids out of the city and snowboarding," says Shin Campos. "Growing up, my parents did some foster parenting and ran a group home, so in a way, I've always been around underprivileged, unwanted kids. It's really a positive thing."

In addition, more than 50 snowboard industry sponsors donate money, gear and facilities to the campers. Local sponsors include Whistler-Blackcomb, Showcase Snowboards, Westbeach and The Circle. Camp CARE is also the official charity of the annual Vans Warped Tour "punk rock summer camp".

Landau first came up with the idea for camp CARE four years ago after agreeing to meet kids from a group home on the slopes for an hour and a half: "On the chairlift, they started telling me stories about their lives and the horrible things they've gone through. I ended up spending the whole day with them, listening to them and watching them have fun. I didn't understand why somebody didn't love these beautiful kids, and wondered if there was a way to bring some joy to their lives."

After a year of putting in 90-hour weeks, camp CARE was up and running, with Landau handling all the arrangements. She has had volunteers help here and there with the administrative details over the years, but the bulk of the growing organizational workload is still on her.

If you're interested in volunteering time or making a donation, you can reach Landau at her e-mail address: campcare@yahoo.com. High school and University volunteers may even be eligible to receive credit for their work.

Camp CARE is also looking for Whistler businesses to donate accommodations for the Jan. 22-23 weekend for between 10 and 12 campers. Food and some kind of entertainment for the group on Saturday night are also needed.

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