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Foundation puts black kids on the ski slopes

A bumpy downhill path led Schone Malliet to teaching others about winter sports

As the winter months cling on far after the holidays, Schone Malliet awaits the smiling faces of young boys and girls ready to learn how to take on winter sports through his National Winter Sports Education Foundation (NWSEF).

There has been a noticeable increase in African-American participation in winter sports recently. In 2013, research from Snowsports Industries America showed that 7.3 percent of Alpine, or downhill skiers, are African-American. The percentage of snowboarders who were African-American was slightly higher at 10.2 percent.

This weekend, the National Winter Activity Center (NWAC) will open its winter 2017 session with a Learn to Ski Program. There were 180 participants in 2015, the program’s first year and 800 participants in 2016. Malliet expects the total amount of participants to exceed 1,500 this time.

“Skiing is kind of interesting because it’s one of the few sports that are distant,” Malliet said. “It’s not just an ethnic or socioeconomic issue, it’s a distance issue. A lot of times what you don’t see, you don’t do.”

NWSEF established the NWAC, a private nonprofit facility in Vernon, New Jersey, that partners with clubs, schools and organizations to provide winter sports training for young men and women. Malliet and partners Phill Gross and Richard “Dick” Coe are leading the charge. Its mission is clear: “To improve the lives, health and fitness of youth in the United States through winter sports.” The founders also wanted to ensure young participants were introduced to winter sports they may not have previously been exposed, or had access to.

“When you expose anybody or kids to new visions, it lets them formulate in their minds their opportunity to pursue other things,” Malliet said. “It changes some of the trajectories. It’s a life-changer in terms of behavior.”

It was especially important to Malliet because of his own childhood.

Growing up in the projects in South Bronx, New York, Malliet remembered being surrounded by fluffy snow, but unfamiliar with the concept of skiing and snowboarding. It wasn’t until Malliet was an adult serving as a pilot in the Marine Corps that he would discover the fun — and sometimes painful moments — of winter activities.

“We had finished an exercise in Las Vegas and coming back from that, my navigator wanted to go skiing,” Malliet said. “He was a skier. I’d never been skiing before. I did what most people do: not take a lesson, not have the right equipment on, and went up in a lift. I didn’t know how to get off the lift, didn’t know how to get down a mountain skiing. I fell numerous times, knocked a lady over.”

Instead of giving up after that disastrous first try, the experience piqued Malliet’s interest. While living in Los Angeles, Malliet joined the 4 Seasons West Ski & Snowboard Club — one of the 13 African-American ski clubs founded by the National Brotherhood of Skiers — and began skiing every weekend.

“Once you overcome your misery, you start to get better at it,” Malliet said. “I developed a really keen interest in it. I started coaching when I didn’t even know how to ski well. Then continued to commit myself to learning and understanding the sport. As a volunteer, I was a coach of young kids.”

Malliet soon realized there was only so much he could do, especially when most kids had limited access to resources that would allow them to participate in winter activities and sports.

In a Huffington Post article listing some of the most expensive sports for kids, hockey, snowboarding and skiing topped the list of pricey snow sports. The accumulating cost for hockey ranged anywhere from $330-$530 while skiing sat at $535. These totals only included basic equipment. Malliet also believes just the lack of exposure keeps most children, especially in African-American communities, away from the sport.

The smiles, determination and fearlessness Malliet sees in the young participants is what makes his job worthwhile.

“I did a radio interview last year and it was the first day that we had a whole bunch of kids out,” Malliet said. “The weather was challenging last year. The interviewer said, ‘So look out there. What do you think?’ I started sobbing because it was that powerful. You know when you do something and you invest your heart in it, you’re able to experience and see the kids’ changes and their excitement about it … This is a culmination of everything I’ve done in my life. To be able to run a business, to be in the industry but also to give back. I know that I would not be here unless some people either guided, protected, or sheltered me from things I probably would have done to myself.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.