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Photo: David Gonzales

Powerful Community

Local nonprofits strive to provide outdoor opportunities for Jackson Hole youth

The town of Jackson, Wyoming, sits just 20 minutes outside of Grand Teton National Park and 58 miles from the southern border of Yellowstone National Park. The town is surrounded by ski hills: Snow King Mountain Resort is located right in the town itself, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is 20 minutes away, and Grand Targhee Resort, although on the other side of the Tetons, isn’t too bad of a drive either. The area also boasts some of the most well-known backcountry snowboarding access in the country. The valley’s crown jewel, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, has been voted the best ski area in North America many times over and averages 459 inches of light, dry Wyoming powder annually. Teton County, Wyoming, which contains the town and all three ski resorts, is also considered one of the wealthiest places in America.

But most of you likely know all of that…

What you may not realize is that within this playground for the rich and famous exists a large youth population who come from low-income backgrounds and cannot access the same experiences as other members of our community. They are the daughters and sons of the working-class folks who clean hotel rooms, cook meals, and drive buses. Helping these kids access the outdoors is exactly what two local nonprofits, Coombs Outdoors and Carving The Future, are on a mission to do.

Shadows of our future. Photo: Talia Atkins

The Doug Coombs Foundation launched in 2012 and renamed itself Coombs Outdoors in 2019. Doug Coombs was a legendary ski guide and extreme skier who tragically passed away in 2006 from a skiing accident in La Grave, France. His wife, Emily Coombs, started the organization in honor of her late husband, their shared passion for outdoor recreation, and with a goal of empowering the youth of Jackson Hole to reach their full potential.

In an effort to create a healthy community where every child thrives, Coombs Outdoors provides year-round outdoor programming for youth from Kindergarten through High School graduation. Their vision is to create “a world in which all kids are able to reap the benefits of the great outdoors, regardless of socio-economic, racial, or cultural barriers.”

Carving The Future was founded by former pro snowboarder Adam Dowell in 2018. Adam’s life changed when he was gifted a snowboard as a kid. His older brothers were snowboarders, but his family couldn’t afford a board for him. The kindness of a stranger’s donation eventually led Adam to a 15-year professional snowboarding career. That initial act of generosity also provided him with a lifelong love of the mountains and an outlet to direct his energy during emotionally challenging times.

Carving The Future believes that board sports serve as a powerful way to mitigate mental health challenges for young people. “Wyoming’s teen suicide rate is triple the national average,” says board member Talia Atkins. “From 2015 to 2019, teen suicide in Wyoming jumped 40%. Being a teen is already hard, but 50% of kids do not get medical care for a treatable mental health diagnosis. Teton County is not free from these statistics,” Atkins continues.
Coombs Outdoors has historically focused on skiing, but in 2019, Carving The Future made a financial contribution to Coombs which provided support to all of the snowboarders enrolled in Coombs’ winter programs. This included covering the cost associated with snowboard rentals as well as lessons for 27 kids. A partnership blossomed between the two organizations.

There’s power in empowering our youth. Photo: Talia Atkins

Recently, honor roll students from the Arapahoe School on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming have been able to come to Snow King Mountain Resort for ski or snowboard lessons through Coombs Outdoors. Many of the students wanted to snowboard, and Snow King found itself short on snowboard instructors. Volunteers from Coombs and Carving The Future stepped up to help the young future rippers get acquainted with the basics of snowboarding. Coombs Outdoors was able to handle the logistics of the outdoor programming and Carving The Future ensured that the students had boards to ride and equipment to keep them both safe and warm. The Arapahoe School took trips to Jackson Hole four times last season and is on track to continue coming this winter, barring any change of plans resulting from COVID-19 safety protocols.

Coombs Outdoors is seeing more interest in snowboarding from their other program participants as well. Out of 80 kids, as many as 10 are currently eager to commit to a full season of snowboard programming, according to Maggie Shipley, Program Manager for Coombs Outdoors. Hugo Alverado is a high school participant who was new to snowboarding last year. He ended up becoming a full-blown shredder who averaged three to four days a week on snow by the end of the season. Shipley thinks it would be fun to have their entire student group try snowboarding for a day, to give other students like Hugo a chance to fall in love with riding.

Photo: David Gonzales

Carving The Future puts their outreach efforts into large single-day events such as Go Skate Day, creating awareness at snowboard industry events, and even hosting competitions. They put together a pop-up skateboarding competition in the fall of 2020 as part of Old Bill’s Fun Run for Charities. Talia Atkins also recently launched G.A.P. (Girls Actively Participating) clinics, to help ensure that female-identifying young people have access to boardsports. Carving The Future also runs a robust gear donation program, allowing them to redirect older, gently-used boards and other gear to kids who might just need a snowboard from a stranger to jump-start their own dreams of going pro.
What does the future look like for these organizations? Carving The Future and Coombs Outdoors both show promising growth. Coombs Outdoors has created invaluable relationships with kids in the community and their families. Carving The Future has created opportunities for many of those kids to own gear. Both organizations are focused on incorporating more training in order to better equip their staff for working with youth who are dealing with trauma or come from challenging backgrounds.

It only takes one caring person taking an interest in a young person’s life to change it for the better. Snowboarding can provide an escape from the difficulties of both adolescence and economic hardship, and be an avenue that teaches kids to find and embrace their passions. Despite the stark income inequality of Jackson Hole, Coombs Outdoors and Carving The Future are helping make the outdoors more inclusive and accessible and creating a powerful new community of riders in the process.

 

Derek MacDonald is a snowboarder, backpacker, writer, runner,
and public speaker based out of Jackson, WY.
He’s happiest when chasing sunrises in the backcountry.

@_derekmacdonald