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One amazing aspect of the Chill program is that Chill staff and volunteers rarely, if ever, know the exact challenges our participants are facing. Chill’s positive youth development approach focuses on realizing individual potential rather than addressing perceived faults or deficiencies. Every youth is treated with respect and physical and emotional boundaries are closely guarded and maintained by all participants and Chill staff, instructors, and volunteers. This approach also leads to engagement with youth on surprising levels that give participants an opportunity to share their personal stories on their own terms, in their own ways.

I rode the chairlift last week with Eddie, a Chill participant that I hadn’t yet connected with on previous program days. Eddie’s chaperone (who is a Chill veteran) was with us as well. Eddie attended the Chill program one-on-one with his chaperone, indicating that Eddie’s challenges were severe enough that he required constant adult supervision and engagement. I asked Eddie what his goal was for the day, expecting a standard snowboarding-related response (link turns, graduate to the next chairlift, etc.). Instead, without hesitation, he told me the following:

“My goal for today is to be present and appreciate this opportunity and do my best to forget about the group home, my family, and school tomorrow. I get overwhelmed sometimes and I can’t get out of bed or leave the group home and I don’t want that to happen anymore.”

I thanked him for sharing that with me and asked if he thought Chill, and specifically snowboarding, was helping him make the life changes he sought. “Everything here is new to me. I’ve never been to a ski mountain, I’ve never ridden on a nice bus, and I’ve never talked to anyone on a chairlift like this before. I’ve realized it’s fun to try new things. I’m still afraid to fail but I’m learning to redefine what failure means.”

I asked him what “redefine failure” meant. He looked at me and his eyes lit up; he was clearly excited to have an opportunity to teach me something. “My goal is to get all the way down the hill without falling. I have to remind myself that if I fall I didn’t fail as long as I get back up and try again. I’ll only fail when I quit trying. In the past I thought I failed at everything and that’s a bad feeling, and it’s not true. Do you understand?” I nodded and gave him a fist bump as we raised the bar and prepared to exit the lift.

When we were all ready, I asked Eddie if he’d like to lead us down and he eagerly jumped at the chance. He started tentatively at first but quickly gained speed while making wide sweeping turns down the hill. As we approached the bottom of the hill Eddie raised his hands in triumph and promptly face planted in premature celebration. His chaperone and I rushed over just as he flipped onto his back. Instead of frustration or anger he was laughing, his face covered in snow. Once he caught his breath he said, “That was an epic fail but I’m not a failure. Can we go back up?”

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