Mentoring in the Mountains – An Impactful Approach to Positive Youth Development

February 15, 2023

Since its inception in 1993 at Vail Mountain, SOS Outreach, a national positive youth development organization, has evolved from humble roots of providing youth access to skiing and snowboarding to now offering a robust multi-year group mentoring curriculum across 24 mountain resorts in 9 states. SOS engages youth from underserved communities and uses mountain sports and positive mentorship as a medium to teach core values and develop leadership skills. With a mission “to change young lives, building character and leadership in underserved kids through mentoring outdoors, SOS harnesses the transformational power of mentorship and outdoor experiences to enable kids and teens to unleash their full potential.

Each year, SOS programs support over 3,000 kids and teens across 9 states (CO, CA, IL, MI, MN, NV, OR, UT, WA) in partnership with 24 mountain resorts. Youth engaged in SOS are primarily low-income and identify as an ethnic minority, and most commonly report the following risks to qualify for programs: qualification for free/reduced lunch, English as a second language, victims of bullying, mental health difficulties, and little to no interest in school. Across 9 years of progressive programming and structured curriculum designed to maximize youth impact, SOS accomplishes three primary objectives: creating a sense of belonging and positive relationships, enhancing self-regulation through social and emotional learning (SEL) skills, and developing strong character by applying core values through community service. Using a group mentoring model (youth are paired in a 4:1 ratio) and the outdoors and activities as a vehicle. SOS creates an intentional space for connectivity and youth growth and development. This unique program approach would not be possible without the dedicated partnership of mountain resorts and leading outdoor industry partners who remove all participation and access barriers for SOS youth. These partners provide over $4M of in-kind programmatic support each year that includes lift tickets, instruction, critical gear and apparel needs that enable the scope and scale of SOS programs. All programmatic elements and activities follow the tenets of positive youth development (PYD) and follow SOS’ cycle of teaching skills, providing space for practice, and encouraging reflection throughout the progression.

Mentorship and the development of strong mentor-mentee relationships sits at the center of SOS programs. SOS creates a meaningful mentor experience with its experiential learning model; forming close connections between the mentor and mentee. Mentors demonstrate that positive relationships with adults are possible and challenge negative views that youth might hold. Mentors also model skills that are useful in an academic or work setting and refrain from activities that encourage unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse or irresponsible behavior. Studies show that youth who have had a mentoring relationship show higher records of high school completion, college attendance, and lower instances of problem behaviors.

SOS is proud to hold a top “gold badge” rating from MENTOR affiliate through the National Quality Mentoring System (NQMS) assessment, certifying 100% of the quality measures are fully in practice. This process noted that SOS “uses superb instrumental mentoring activities (ski/snowboard, skill-building, and core values) to provide a consistent framework on which match/group quality can develop.”  SOS mentor/ee relationships are created almost immediately over common interest and the shared experience of skiing. Mentors/ees bond over the challenges and highlights of the day, sharing stories and words of encouragement with one another. Also of celebration, SOS was awarded U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Champion Award. The award is focused on recognizing a person, group, organization, or program that has contributed significantly and sustainably to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in skiing and snowboarding. Across its programs, SOS is honored to positively impact and create inclusive and equitable opportunities for youth to thrive.

Programmatically, SOS measures outcomes through a validated pre-post self-report survey completed at program start that as baseline and post-tests at the end of each season, and a season-end program exit questionnaire. Recent results show that SOS is exceptionally effective in increasing connection. 96% of youth report, “mentors helped me to succeed in the things I did this past year.” 93% of youth report, “mentors expected me to succeed.” 94% of youth report, “mentors and participants helped me feel proud of myself.” Pre-post survey results show statistically significant improvements in sense of belonging, community connection, teamwork, perceived competence in the activity (skiing/snowboarding), self-determination, and improvements in relevant areas of prosocial behavior.

Mentoring youth can be challenging, however, SOS’ unique and intentional use of skiing and snowboarding as the primary activity aids in mentors and mentees forming an immediate bond over a common interest. From the initial connection, SOS’ adherence to mentoring best practices enables truly powerful relationships to form and develop over time. The model of SOS programs translates to equipping youth with skills and lessons that will last a lifetime, and translate both on and off the slopes.