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Zero Ceiling: A journey to the top

Eight-year-old program for disadvantaged youth making a difference in people's lives

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Amidst the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, it is easy to get swept up in the commercial frenzy that seems to grip many at this time of year. iPods, laptop computers, digital cameras, Harry Potter DVDs and all sorts of other items are topping the gift lists this year. Here in Whistler, the two weeks around Christmas Day seem to emulate riches as visitors from around the world descend on the resort for fine dining, excellent skiing and fabulous shopping.

Within the resort community, however, are four youth who will be receiving a unique holiday gift: a chance to change their lives. These youth are this year’s cohort of Zero Ceiling Snowboard Instructor Program participants.

Zero Ceiling was established in 1997 by local pro skier Chris Winter, who moved to Whistler from a small town east of Ottawa several years earlier, psyched to ski all winter and mountain bike all summer. The outdoors lifestyle fuelled him and he was keen to share his passion with others. When Winter first envisioned a means of sharing the mountain lifestyle with others, his mind focused on a summer camp for wealthy youth. However, during a discussion with a friend, his idea for a tourist-oriented summer camp evolved into something much bigger and more meaningful.

Winter casually mentioned to his friend that it would be great to share the camp infrastructure with disadvantaged youth during the shoulder season, when the camp was not in session. His friend happened to mention that idea to another friend who worked at a shelter for street youth in Vancouver called Dusk to Dawn – and soon Winter’s phone rang. The counselor said she had heard he was starting a program for disadvantaged youth and wanted to learn more. Winter quickly explained to the counselor that his camp was as yet a dream, but offered to call around town to see what might be done for the youth she was representing. Within 24 hours, a program had been arranged and Zero Ceiling was born.

Zero Ceiling is a non-profit organization that provides disadvantaged youth the opportunity to seek healthier, happier lifestyles through active living. The organization works with more than 15 shelters and agencies throughout the Lower Mainland and the Sea to Sky corridor to assist youth aged 13 to 23 who are looking for an opportunity to change their lives. The catalyst to such change comes in the form of adventure-based learning and outdoor mountain sports, mainly snowboarding.

Zero Ceiling offers two core programs. The first program entails a day-visit to Whistler-Blackcomb, where youth are provided with lift tickets, snowboards, gear, and a lesson. The agencies representing the youth are responsible for transportation to Whistler, lunches, and a chaperone. Zero Ceiling – with the generous assistance of local businesses – provides the rest. The Day-Visit program is geared to provide youth with the opportunity to spend some time outside the urban Vancouver environment, where homelessness, substance-addiction and crime can be a normal part of each day.

"The program allows youth to experience the wonder of the local mountain landscape and to gain confidence in their capabilities," says Marnie Walter, Zero Ceiling Program Manager. "For some kids, it’s their first time on snow. For others, it’s a chance to develop their athletic skills and escape reality for a few hours."

It’s also an opportunity for Zero Ceiling to let the youth know about their programs, and perhaps entice them to consider the Snowboard Instructor Program (SIP). With both the Day-Visit and the Snowboard Instructor Program, graduates from previous years instruct the participants.

The SIP is geared towards youth who are ready to make a substantial change in their lives. The program begins with an intense week in Whistler, all expenses paid, during which participants go through a training course that will eventually lead to a Snowboard Instructor Level 1 certification. This is no holiday, however. The days begin at 7 a.m. with vigorous on-mountain training and run into the evenings with various sessions on resume writing, job interviewing techniques, and personal development. If they pass, the participants are then given the opportunity to join the Whistler-Blackcomb Snowboard School and move into staff housing for the season – a far cry from Vancouver’s rainy streets.

Interestingly enough, there are some similarities between street culture and Whistler’s glitzy ski scene. According to Winter, Executive Director of Zero Ceiling, the alternative "ski bum" lifestyle can be likened to the "street kids" lifestyle in the sense that both reside somewhere on the edges of society. Similarly, both are shunned by society. It is perhaps this parallel that has allowed Zero Ceiling program participants to successfully move from one universe to the other – or from begging from the well-to-do to teaching those same people how to be cool and snowboard like a pro. At the same time, the distance from the streets of Vancouver to Whistler’s ski slopes is a psychological journey much longer than 125 km.

Greg McDonnell, who works as both a Zero Ceiling board member and Whistler’s Youth Outreach Worker, recognizes that the move is no easy transition. In both of his positions McDonnell works to ensure that program participants are aware of and have access to services such as the food bank, counseling, financial assistance, drug and alcohol support groups, housing, mediation, mentorship, or just somebody to talk to. According to McDonnell, one of the biggest challenges facing a number of the youth is coming to the realization that they can maintain their sub-culture philosophies while simultaneously participating in society. It is possible to retain a job, housing and healthy interpersonal relationships without sacrificing personal beliefs.

Another challenge that McDonnell deals with is the local perception that disadvantaged and at-risk youth don’t fit into the tidy resort community of Whistler. Fortunately, many Whistler businesses and families have welcomed the participants with open arms. One example involves a local couple who invited the SIP program participants into their lavish home along Nicklaus North Golf Course for dinner. The experience of being welcomed into a family home and sharing food, one of the most basic tenets of social interaction, had a major impact on the youth and instilled a sense of confidence that no financial donor could match.

Whistler-Blackcomb has also been instrumental in Zero Ceiling’s success. The company provides lift tickets, rental equipment, lunches and instruction. Additionally, they provide employment opportunities within the Snowboard School and housing at their staff facilities.

Zero Ceiling has also received funding through the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation to create welcome packages for SIP participants upon their arrival to Whistler in mid-December. The packages provide basic necessities such as warm clothing, bedding, toiletries and food staples. Also key is the generosity and support of the general community, who have enthusiastically supported Zero Ceiling since the beginning.

But are the Zero Ceiling programs working? Do they make a difference? The best people to answer these questions are program graduates. Whistler resident Carter Hack was a SIP participant in 2000, after four years of living on and off the streets of Vancouver. What inspired Hack to give the Zero Ceiling program a chance was the fact that it was a way out – not just out of the city, but also out of dead-end jobs and an unhealthy lifestyle. Before moving to Whistler snowboarding was just something that Hack and his friends saw on TV. Joining the SIP was a chance for him to quite literally "live the dream."

For the first few months, however, it wasn’t an easy dream to live. Each day provided constant challenges – working to improve his snowboarding and teaching skills, learning how to integrate into the mainstream Whistler social scene, and gaining an understanding for how his appearance impacted those around him, at work and at play.

But for Hack, the hard work was worth it and he garnered inspiration to succeed through an appreciation for the beauty of the surroundings, the fresh mountain air and the opportunity to become a part of something big – Whistler-Blackcomb, the snowboard scene, and the Whistler community at large. In Hack’s words, "Zero Ceiling provides an opportunity for youth to replace unhealthy substance addictions with an alternative form of stimulation – a dose of something strong with no side effects that lasts forever." It’s the ultimate high.

Today Hack is a board member and assists with training peer mentors, advising on how to improve the programs, and identifying and selecting program participants. This last task, identifying "suitable" program participants, can be difficult. Because each case is unique, Zero Ceiling does not have a specific criterion for applicants, other than that applicants must be referred through an agency that has known them for some time.

Hack is an advocate for the "harder cases" – those who are living on the streets, own virtually nothing, have little or no contact with family, and have experienced serious substance addictions. He believes that these are the youth who really need Zero Ceiling – they have hit rock bottom and have nowhere to go but up.

The harder cases certainly provide challenges for Zero Ceiling and not all participants have made it through the program successfully. But it is the harder cases and the occasional failure that allow Zero Ceiling to learn and grow. Over the years these challenges have led to the addition of support networks such as housing advisors and the peer mentorship program, which in turn have increased the likelihood of success for future program participants.

While Zero Ceiling is proud of its successes, the organization isn’t going to rest on its laurels. This year the board has focused discussions on how to grow the organization. Such discussions are leading towards the creation of new programs as well as working to ensure that disadvantaged youth closer to home (within the Sea to Sky corridor) are also able to access the programs. The board recognizes that while the basis of the organization’s programs is solid, not all at-risk youth are interested in becoming snowboard instructors. As such, the board has been working to develop a parallel program that would allow youth the opportunity to gain employment opportunities in other streams, such as retail, hospitality, maintenance or administration.

Similarly, the Day Visit program has expanded to a year-round schedule incorporating summer sports. This past summer youth participated in mountain biking at Whistler-Blackcomb’s Bike Park and went zip-trekking.

Since its first year of operations in 1997, Zero Ceiling has hosted more than 1,000 youth in its programs.

Zero Ceiling has also recently expanded to a national focus with the addition of the Zero Ceiling Quebec. The French chapter of the program was initiated when young Montreal entrepreneur Philippe Krivicky approached Chris Winter after seeing Zero Ceiling featured on the television program SportsNet.

Krivicky believes there are four essential elements to a balanced lifestyle: family and friends; work; spirituality; and sport. He felt that Zero Ceiling embodied all four and was inspired to begin a branch of the program at Mont Tremblant. In its first season in 2003, the Quebec branch hosted over 140 youth through the Day Visit program. This season it will also offer the Instructor Program, with employment opportunities in both the Ski and Snowboard Schools.

Krivicky has proved himself to be a hard-working addition to the organization, having raised over $20,000 from diverse sources such as the Zellers Foundation, ING Canada, the Cirque du Soleil and Lafuma (a ski and snowboard wear company). Krivicky would like to ensure that the Quebec branch grows a solid base, and foresees the addition of a third program geared specifically towards teenagers.

Meanwhile back in Whistler, Zero Ceiling has been garnering its own attention. There can be no doubt that the organization is a sexy one to be affiliated with – having been the benefactor of fundraising efforts by groups such as Westbeach Canada and the TELUS World Ski and Snowboard Festival, where the organization received funds from both the Riding High Mountain Bike Slideshow and the world premiere of the indie skater film Lords of Dogtown . Currently, the organization is also in sponsorship discussions with a telecommunications company and Snowboard.com.

Having established its programs and credibility, the organization is now looking to secure additional funding through corporate and government sectors.

The pending arrival of the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games is another possible avenue. Recently, 2010 Legacies Now, a non-profit organization working to ensure Olympic-related legacies, facilitated discussions between Zero Ceiling and the Royal Bank Canada Foundation. These discussions led to a much-appreciated financial donation.

In the meantime, Winter still hopes that Zero Ceiling will have an opportunity in the future to fulfill a more prominent role in the realization of Olympic legacies. As with other non-profit organizations, funding is the catalyst to such aspirations.

So what is on Zero Ceiling’s holiday wish list this year? What would the organization like to achieve if funding were not an issue? Both Winter and Hack are quick to articulate several aspirations. The first would be the ability to accommodate more youth into the SIP and to be able to offer employment opportunities in addition to the Snowboard School that appeal to their youth audience.

Funding for a full-time counselor would also be welcomed, as would an ongoing sponsorship with some sort of company that can provide the youth with the required gear they need – snowboard, boots, bindings, outerwear, helmets and goggles.

Winter also envisions expanding the organization across Canada, with his sights set on Toronto as the next possible branch. Above all, Zero Ceiling hopes for long-term sustainability and increased financial support.

So this holiday season, as you lace and buckle up those snazzy new ski or snowboard boots, stroll through the crisp air to the chairlift, and take a ride with Whistler’s finest snowboard instructors, consider that you might be in the presence of a new person. Somebody who has taken the biggest step of their lives, and like you, revels in the life-altering experience of cruising the most amazing slopes in the world. For after all, it isn’t money or gifts that make this time of year special, it is the knowledge that through innovation and philanthropy, it is possible to make a difference in real people’s lives.

For more information on Zero Ceiling, please visit www.zeroceiling.org

For information on becoming involved or donations, please contact mwalter@telus.net