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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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"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.