Outdoors Blog

Bogus Basin Nordic Team teaches refugee kids to ski; ‘It’s so boring staying at home’

Abigail Kiiza is one of the skiers in the RefuSKI program. She was recruited by teacher Megan Jones, who founded the program. “It’s just a great way to discover the area and make a connection with your new land,” Jones said.
Abigail Kiiza is one of the skiers in the RefuSKI program. She was recruited by teacher Megan Jones, who founded the program. “It’s just a great way to discover the area and make a connection with your new land,” Jones said. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

Elementary-age skiers in the Bogus Basin Nordic Team youth rec program were messing around at the end of practice last month when fourth-grader Sadock Debwe zipped down a hill, let out a nervous yell, turned 90 degrees and stopped.

“Hockey stop!” he shouted.

And then he did it again.

The first successful hockey stop was the latest sign of Debwe’s improving cross country skiing skills as part of the BBNT’s RefuSKI program. Debwe is one of eight refugee children who have participated in the recreational program this winter on scholarships provided by the Bogus Basin Nordic Team, Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area and donors.

Debwe is in his second year in the program, which was started by Boise teacher Megan Jones through her work with refugees in the school system.

“I came up here and it was fun,” Debwe said. “... Every time I come, I work on (the hockey stop).”

RefuSKI is in its eighth year but has become a more formalized part of the Bogus Basin Nordic Team this winter. The team covers the cost of the program and acquires donated clothing for the kids; the ski area provides Nordic trail passes and rentals. Kendall Lutz, the youth rec and RefuSKI coordinator, picks up the refugee kids for the Wednesday and Thursday evening practices.

Lutz has been involved with the program for three years but this is the first winter that the RefuSKI program is officially part of her job. Jones “wanted to cry” when Wilson Dippo, the team’s coach, told her about that.

“It’s about giving a gift to a child that they’ll have forever,” said Jones, who is an English-language learner teacher at Jefferson Elementary. “A good experience, an inclusive experience, a learning experience, that once someone has they own and it becomes part of them. When we create that for our children, we’re forging bonds for our community that will make it stronger, and I think that’s what we all want.”

Jones recruits the RefuSKI members from her school, where she has relationships with the kids and parents and can remind the kids about practices. Most have come from African countries, she said.

She is a Nordic skier who had kids on the BBNT, so she asked the coach at the time if he’d take some refugees into the program. Jones sponsored four girls, providing their clothing and driving them to meet the BBNT van at the base of Bogus Basin Road. Another sponsor brought two more kids to the program for a total of six the first year.

“We had 100 percent attendance for three years,” Jones said. “The only reason students dropped out was because they moved away. It definitely changed children. It seemed like once they started the ski program they became very engaged in school and started to do very well academically. To me, it was a game-changer: ‘Oh my gosh, I need to do this for every one of my students.’ ... To me, it’s about forging an identity and creating a new sense of place.”

Over the next few years, some students moved or aged out of the program, new kids joined and Dippo became the BBNT coach. The RefuSKI roster dwindled to two skiers. At one point, Jones was picking up students in Meridian and near the Boise Airport — an hour of driving to pick them up and another hour to drop them off.

“It was becoming untenable,” she said.

Dippo became the BBNT head coach in 2015. He hadn’t heard of RefuSKI until he received a phone call about it. He met with Jones that fall to discuss how the team could expand the program.

“She didn’t have the resources herself to continue to grow the program, and we did,” Dippo said. “We have vans that don’t get used before practice. It doesn’t take a lot from our end to say, ‘Let’s drive and pick the kids up rather than relying on a volunteer to do it.’ Last year was a trial run in terms of how it would work if BBNT ran it. We had four kids last year. It was pretty successful. So we met this past summer and said, ‘Hey, let’s take the next step here and see what happens if we grow the program a little more,’ and we plan to do the same next year.”

Three of last year’s four skiers returned this season. Five newcomers brought the program to a record total of eight but two have dropped out because of other commitments. The team also planned three outreach days to bring 12 refugees each to Bogus Basin to sample Nordic skiing.

One of the newcomers this season is Abigail Kiiza, a fourth-grader who said she’d never played in the snow before joining the team. She plans to stick with the sport. Going downhill is her favorite.

“It’s so boring staying at home,” she said.

Said Kassim, also a fourth-grader, joined the team last winter. Jones recruited him, but he didn’t quite realize it.

“I never knew I signed up,” he said. “I was just watching movies at my house. Somebody knocks and says, ‘Get ready to go skiing.’ So I started skiing.”

For Jones and now Lutz, making sure the kids are prepared to ski is a major emphasis. Lutz takes the skiing clothes home with her and brings them to the next practice to avoid kids showing up shorthanded. She has picked up kids who were bare-footed or wearing flip-flops.

She thinks most of the parents don’t understand what it is the kids are doing when they go up the mountain. “Last year in particular, the group of four, they were mesmerized for the fact we were so high up and looking down on the Valley,” Lutz said. “... Their experience is just so much different.”

The RefuSKIers are integrated into the non-competitive rec program with the other skiers, some of whom have more advanced skills because they’ve been skiing longer. Lutz pushes them all. Cross country skiing is uncomfortable, she said — the elements can be harsh, the technique takes time to master and the effort required can be exhausting.

“I’m not a gentle coddler,” Lutz said. “I yell with love. It’s like: ‘Get up. Keep moving. Yep, this is hard. I know it’s hard.’ ... There’s a lot of lessons in perseverance. The kids who choose to be part of (the recreation) program, their parents take them camping, they’ve been in environmental difficulties, they’ve been cold. They’ve been on a long hike and been deluged with rain. These kids are now getting that. They get empowered by the fact of: ‘Wow, I did do it. Did you see how good I skied today? I got up Kendall, did you see that?’ ”

One indicator of the attitude she sees developing in the RefuSKIers occurred earlier this month. Lutz drives past her house with the kids on the way to Bogus Basin, so they know where she lives. She heard a knock and found Kassim at her door. He had left his uncle’s phone in the car.

“He walked 3 1/2 miles across town,” Lutz said. “The kid was able to navigate through Downtown Boise to get to my house. That was pretty impressive.”

Bogus Basin Nordic Team’s youth rec program

The program is for students in second through sixth grades (it will be third through sixth next winter). It emphasizes having fun while learning the fundamentals of classic and skate skiing. The cost was $315 this year for two to three practices a week plus dry-land training in the fall. It was $395 including van transportation up and down Bogus Basin Road, or $250/$300 for a one-day-a-week option.

Ryder Booth, a sixth-grader, prefers cross country skiing to downhill. He’s among about 55 kids in the program this winter.

“I just kind of like the gliding feel when you’re just poling and then you can glide,” he said. “(Downhill) is a little bit scarier, for me at least. I like this because I’m more in control.”

More info: bbnt.ski