A little over a year ago, Kehew McCallum was living in Covenant House Vancouver when a poster on the lunch room wall caught her eye.
She could just make out the word "Whistler." She moved closer to see what the poster was all about, pushing the food cart out of the way to read more.
It was an ad for Zero Ceiling, the long-standing Whistler non-profit organization that has been helping homeless and at-risk youth from Vancouver and the Sea to Sky corridor for two decades, introducing them to life in the mountains with jobs, housing, support and the promise of adventure — the promise of a fresh start.
"'Oh my God,'" McCallum remembers thinking, "'Why didn't anyone tell me about this?'"
She had missed the deadline to apply for the program by one day but that didn't stop her. McCallum rushed to finish her cover letter and resume. That was enough to get her foot in the door. She showed up for her interview in a Whistler Blackcomb sweater, willing the job and this opportunity with everything she had.
Would this be a defining life moment for the 21-year-old Métis youth?
For two months she had been living at Covenant House. She had no friends. She was estranged from her family. She was worried about the future, uncertain and afraid. Alone.
"I felt truly lost," she says of the time. "I literally didn't know what to do."
Zero Ceiling changed everything.
"It is the most amazing opportunity that I've ever had. I'm so glad that I've been in it," says McCallum.
As it heads into its 20th year, Zero Ceiling is combining forces with another longstanding Whistler institution — a relatively underground event called the Whitewater Rodeo, also in its 20th year, in a new fundraising event. It's a sign of Whistler's ongoing commitment to this organization, that has been changing lives like McCallum's for two decades.
"It's unbelievable, in my opinion, that Zero Ceiling is still providing the service that it did 20 years later because basically since the very inception it's been a challenge," says founder Chris Winter, who was at its helm for the first decade, and knows first-hand the struggles of keeping a small non-profit afloat.
"It's a testament to the community of Whistler that Zero Ceiling is still in existence."
And to think, he says, it all started with an off-the cuff comment at a party... as so many good ideas do.
Zero Ceiling is born
Twenty years ago, Winter was a 26-year-old pro skier, based in Whistler. And then he blew his ACL. It was time to take stock of things.
Zero Ceiling was an idea in passing, that he happened to mention at a party. What if kids, living on the streets in Vancouver, could be exposed to life in the mountains?
Zero Ceiling was born, one of Whistler's first charities.
"It was very evident to me back in the day that people in Whistler were looking for a way to give back, to share what we have here," says Winter.
Perhaps the timing was right. Or maybe people were interested in helping out beyond the "Whistler bubble." Maybe people were just looking to get behind a good cause.
Whatever the reason, Winter used his extensive connections at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) to rally support — snowboard gear for the youth from the rental shops, lessons from snowboard school, free lift passes.
It wasn't long until WB was fully behind the idea.
While only a handful of people come up through the Work 2 Live program every year — eight youth per year — it's the impact it has on those people that makes all the difference.
"Those that is does impact, it's truly life changing, which I'm really proud of," says Winter.
There is empirical evidence that providing a change of scene for at-risk youth can make a difference. That's one of the reasons why Whistler works, says Zero Ceiling's co-executive director Chris Wrightson.
"And the outdoors provides perspective," she adds. "It also works because it's an extremely supportive community."
McCallum, for example, was ready for a change when she spotted that poster with the word "Whistler." It was why she was chosen last year as one of the eight youth to go through the Work 2 Live program.
She moved from Covenant House Vancouver to staff housing at Whistler Blackcomb and got a job as a liftie on Whistler Mountain.
Last month marked the end of her year-long commitment.
"I've never worked in a job as long as that," she says.
It wasn't without its challenges, McCallum admits, chief among them the fact that her four-year-old son lives with his father in Vancouver and living in Whistler put her farther away from him.
"I want him to have the most beautiful life," she says. "By me doing this I can show him that there's more to life — be active, enjoy yourself and just do things that make you feel alive."
Staying alive over two decades
It costs $17,000 per youth per year to go through the Work 2 Live program. The shelter system, by comparison, costs $30,000 to $40,000 per youth per year.
"It's actually an extremely cost effective program," says Wrightson.
"When they graduate from our program they're independent, contributing autonomous young adults."
Zero Ceiling, however, faces the same challenges as every non-profit — how to keep the funding coming in year over year. There are grant applications, sponsorship requests, fundraising events, private donors.
The Work 2 Live program is just one part; Zero Ceiling also runs a Daily Shred program, bringing at-risk youth to Whistler for the day to get a taste of the outdoors — skiing, snowboarding, biking, zipping.
The organization runs on an annual budget of $300,000 with about one-third of that from in-kind donations, chiefly from Whistler Blackcomb, The Adventure Group (TAG) and Nesters.
For the past few months, its board has been brainstorming other ways to fundraise.
"Something that I'm a little bit sensitive to in this town, and I'm sure it exists for a lot of people, is event fatigue and donor fatigue — getting asked to contribute to and support a lot of things and all of them are great but you have to pick and choose," says board member Joey Houssian, owner of TAG, which owns Wedge Rafting and Superfly Ziplines.
"I wanted to create something for Zero Ceiling that would really excite people year over year, and where they could have an experience and support a great cause at the same time."
In recent years, Zero Ceiling's annual fundraiser "Hullabaloo," at Scandinave Spa, raised funds through admissions and a silent auction, bringing in approximately $20,000 every year.
Could Zero Ceiling come up with a new signature event that could stand the test of time, something they could bank on year over year, that could raise more money and be a unique marquee event in Whistler? Something that would reflect not just Whistler but the spirit of Zero Ceiling too.
Nothing came to mind... until Houssian suggested donating all the proceeds from his annual Whitewater Rodeo, an event hosted by Wedge Rafting.
The annual sell-out event has been an underground industry party, held on a Wednesday in June so that bar and restaurant staff could attend. Teams enter boats in competitions and spend the day having fun on Green River. The day festivities morph into the night for an epic party in the mountains. It seemed like a great fit. Houssian began rallying support.
Gibbons Hospitality came to the table, donating food, drink, venues and entertainment.
The Vancouver-based Good Fortune Collective has donated branding and advertising.
In the end, 100 per cent of the gross revenue will flow back to Zero Ceiling.
If all goes according to plan, the June 21 Rodeo could raise $50,000.
"My hope is that all of the people who have traditionally supported the event will continue to and will agree to pay slightly more to participate, knowing that every penny is going towards a great cause," says Houssian.
General registration is available with boats priced at $750 for six individuals. Registration opens today, June 8 at Wedge Rafting in Mountain Square at the Carlton Lodge, or by calling 604 932 7171.
The community rallies behind Zero Ceiling
There are several long-standing community supporters, like TAG and WB, making Zero Ceiling's impact widespread in Whistler.
Those are the kind of relationships that Zero Ceiling wants to build with others.
"Being connected to Zero Ceiling is a pretty easy way to create amazingly, long-lasting, impactful change in individuals," says co executive director Sean Easton. "And that really benefits the Whistler community but also the broader community in B.C."
WB is perfectly set up for this kind of program — with beds in staff housing, jobs on the mountain, mentoring through its various departments.
"We've supported it from day one," said Nicole Baudisch, who has long been associated with the program, first at a house advisor in WB's staff housing and now as a board member.
"Through the years we've just wanted to help out these kids."
It was originally set up so that youth would learn to be snowboard instructors through snowboard school. That has changed over the years with various departments coming on board as Zero Ceiling and WB look to pair the youth with the right fit in the organization — lift maintenance, food and beverage, retail.
The youth commit to stay with WB for a year. About 50 per cent are female and about 50 per cent are First Nations.
According to stats from WB's Employee Experience department, 69 per cent of Zero Ceiling youth worked for WB twice as long as their original commitment, with 44 per cent working for WB two years or more and 15 per cent staying on for eight years or more.
Beyond WB, Zero Ceiling employees are dotted around town, graduates who are out in the workforce under their own steam, some still closely connected to their Zero Ceiling family.
Alexandra Powell is the manager at Olives Community Market in Function Junction and has hired three Zero Ceiling youth, not knowing at the time that they came to Whistler through the program.
"They come in, they have great personalities, they submit strong resumes, they have good work experience, they're nice people, they work hard," says Powell. "So, the program is working out and they're working out and I have only good things to say about it.
"As far as I'm concerned they can keep sending people our way; we'll keep hiring them."
Fresh faces arrive from Vancouver
This week more youth arrived through the Work 2 Live program. On their third day, they were introduced to the bike park with. WB provided rental bikes, gear, an instructor.
"It's one of the best parts of my job," says Easton.
It's not just that he's seeing the bike park through fresh eyes. It's really about seeing a person experience something they never thought they would have the chance to experience; that's what makes the job.
Shock and awe, says Easton of what the day was like for the new youth.
Aside from all the hooting and hollering and occasional groans from minor crashes, there was another familiar refrain that day: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Their time in Whistler is just beginning; their future full of new adventures, challenges, opportunities.
They have the Zero Ceiling family to back them up.
"My practice philosophy is providing unconditional positive regard and support," says Easton.
You can see this philosophy at play in the way he and Wrightson interact with the youth.
"They look at it as an opportunity. They look at this as a privilege," says Easton.
"They're here to change something."
Take McCallum, now trying to become a zipline guide at Superfly Ziplines.
It's a fitting choice perhaps. Her name — Kehew — means "eagle." She was born while her parents were passing through a small town in Alberta, close to Kehewin Cree Nation.
She is trying to get her "sign off," the final approval to be a Superfly guide.
It's proving to be a challenge.
The disappointment is evident last week when she didn't pass.
"Normally at this point I would have been 'I'm done, I quit.' But I was like 'No, I'm going to go home, take a day off — review, review, review. And go back and smash it out,'" says McCallum.
If this had happened before Zero Ceiling, she likely would have given up, she says.
"Everything little thing that I've gone through, I wouldn't change any of it, not even one thing."
As Pique went to print we learned that all the hard work had paid off as McCallum got her official "sign off" as a Superfly guide. She'll be working in Whistler throughout the summer season.
Matty Morin came to Whistler through Zero Ceiling in November 2014. He was 18 years old.
At the time he was taking part in a program in the city called Yo Bro/Yo Girl, designed to "cultivate resiliency in at-risk youth and empower them with tools to avoid the perils of drugs, gangs, crime and violence."
"Definitely wasn't the most stable guy before I came up here," he says.
"All I knew was the city; didn't even know people could snowboard or ski down a mountain the way they do in Whistler. It's a whole other world."
But it was time. Time to get away. Time for fresh perspective.
"I was ready," Morin says quietly. "I was ready."
He spent a year working for WB through the Work 2 Live program where he worked as a liftie, learned to snowboard, lived in staff housing.
About eight months ago he applied for a job at Olives Community Market. It was a place he loved to visit, good healthy food, good healthy vibes.
"Whenever I'd have a bad day, I'd come here and I'd just feel better," he says.
Now, he has two jobs to get by in Whistler and pay the rent. That's what you have to do to make money and choose healthy lifestyle choices, he says. That, or get a girlfriend to share the costs.
Has he met anyone special?
"Nope. That's why I have a second job," he laughs.
The future seems so much brighter than it did from his city vantage point. He wants to go to school, perhaps set up his own program for youth with dreams of being a social worker or therapist or a teacher.
It all seems within reach. Zero Ceiling has changed his life, given him the tools to succeed, a more realistic approach to his struggles, he says.
Of Zero Ceiling, he adds: "I think that it's good for the world and I'm glad it's being supported. That's awesome. I'm glad I experienced the Zero Ceiling program. Very grateful."
The best option for Kai Walters when he was 19 years old was taking a chance on Zero Ceiling.
"Looking back in hindsight, I needed it," he says. "Every other choice I had was difficult.
"Just the fact that they were able to get me on my feet was enough."
Walters knows what it's like to be stuck. He was homeless at 16 years old. There are lots of different reasons, he says, why people go to the streets. Every reason seems to point to the fact that it's not too hard to become homeless; it's always right around the corner.
"I was living in an unhealthy environment," he says. "I wanted to be able to leave and I could, so I did."
There were stints in shelters but most of the time he lived under Burrard Bridge.
"The worst moment was I was sleeping on a bench and I woke up about 2 or 3 in the morning, getting rained on and I had nowhere to go," he recalls. "This was the only spot. I'd walked until I couldn't walk any more. This was the best spot I could find."
Now he was cold and wet and realizing that he was "shit out of luck right now."
He likens Zero Ceiling to a hand reaching down into the trenches, grabbing your wrist, and pulling you out.
He began working as a busser at the Rendezvous, got a second job as a dishwasher at La Bocca, graduated the program early.
He went back to the city, fell down again. And got back up, equipped with the skills to land on his feet again.
After three years, Walters found he way back to Whistler, ironically homeless and living in a van for a period of time, a temporary victim of Whistler's housing crunch.
This season he worked in the kitchen at Steeps, where he has been able to hone his passion for food.
It's a trade he can use anywhere in the world and Walters has his sights set on Japan for next season.
"I am who I am today because of Zero Ceiling. 100 per cent."