Outdoor Improvement

Big Sky Youth Empowerment Project gets local teens outside.

Imagine being of limited means, then receiving a snowboard, all the gear, and a Big Sky lift ticket to go hang out with a new group of friends on Saturdays: an opportunity of financial and personal support that never before existed.

A program in Bozeman is currently strengthening the ability and leadership of teenagers who lack healthy activities and role models through snowboarding. “I see it as a proactive approach to how we teach teenagers,” says Pete MacFadyen, Executive Director of the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Project. “Kids all have needs and they will meet those needs in healthy or unhealthy ways.”

The Big Sky Youth Empowerment program is a unique opportunity for teenagers to participate in positive life-enhancing outdoor activities, such as snowboarding, fly-fishing and horseback riding. “Everyone’s born with a dealt deck of cards,” says MacFadyen. “Some kids have at-risk variables in their lives. The more risk, the more likely they are to engage in misbehaviors.” Examples of at-risk factors are when adolescents consider school meaningless, live in a troublesome household, or spend time with peers participating in unhealthy activities.

Servicing Gallatin and Park County teenagers, the program is expecting over 100 applicants for 15 spots in the 2004 snowboarding program. This year they’ve expanded their program to include an alumni course that focuses on leadership and service while hiking the backcountry ridge at Bridger Bowl.

“Any time a person learns something new, it increases their self-esteem,” explains MacFadyen. “They take experiences and generalize them into other areas of their lives. Like walking into Algebra class—granted, it’s not as much fun as snowboarding, but they know they have ability to succeed. Many kids are told only their failures but we work hard at redeeming that trend.”

The teenagers will be geared-up from snowboard to goggles to lift tickets at no cost. Since 2002, Big Sky Resort has donated over $25,000 in life tickets to support the program. One of the most unique aspects is that if the participant completes all the workshops and counseling, he or she can keep the $1,200 worth of gear—offering the graduate a continued health-enhancing opportunity.

Pete MacFadyen is a licensed professional counselor at his own local practice, Adolescent Counseling Services. Working for wilderness programs such as the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound, he’s realized the power of outdoor adventures. “Being outside is a healthy thing,” he explains. “Counseling doesn’t fit for everyone. Spending time and connecting with others and learning a sport, people often feel good about themselves and are less likely to have mental-health issues.”

The 11-week program also includes a Monday night social-emotional workshop with activities such as trust walks, adventure-based games, and discussions for transferring experiences into everyday life. The program’s curriculum is designed and implemented by Montana State University graduate students. “We are very mindful and pick ideas formulated to build self-esteem, build health-enhancing relationships, and are fun,” says Katie Tuchscherer, a graduate student in School Counseling. “We really try to listen to the kids.”

Katie remembers an 18-year-old student who got kicked out of every program he had been a part of. “He never showed any sign of emotion,” she says. “He never talked about it.” But when he stood up at graduation he began to cry, speaking of how he wouldn’t know where he’d be without the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Project.

Coming into its third year, the program has a strong reputation among local teenagers. Jasmine Bowman is a high school senior who plans on graduating a year early to pursue her artistic dreams. She participated in the snowboarding program last year. “Pete is really easy to talk to,” she explains. “He’s just a bigger, grown-up version of us. Everyone loves Pete.”

The last night her group was together, they went around the circle, spotlighting each individual and saying something they each liked about each other. “We don’t really acknowledge that about others and ourselves,” Bowman says. “I’m trying to maintain that by thinking about the positive side of things and myself.”

Bowman hopes she has the opportunity to return again this year. “Jasmine stretched herself and came to love and appreciate the challenge,” says Anne Sullivan, her high school counselor. As the counselor at Bridger Alternative School, Sullivan often listens to the Monday-morning hallway talk about their weekends. “I can hear that they are happy reminiscing about their weekend of camaraderie,” she says. “They’re feeling connected to something that is positive and legal.”

The support of Bozeman is overwhelming, with a long list of qualified volunteers and donations. In 2002, the program began with one snowboard class. This season, Pete and his staff are planning two fly-fishing, one horseback riding, and three snowboard programs. “The community has a responsibility to provide opportunities for kids to have good lives and healthy options to meet their needs,” says MacFadyen. “They are the world’s greatest resource.”