By Ben Olson
Five years ago, Schweitzer ski instructor Jeff Rouleau received a thank you letter that changed everything.
“Schweitzer does this great deal with local schools where they give every 4th grader a free day of skiing every year,” said Rouleau. “This thank you note ended up in our locker room and I remember it having a huge impact on me.”
The note, written by a 4th grader, read: “Thank you for the best day of my life. I probably won’t see any of you ever again. So goodbye.”
“Here’s this kid who is a local and never had or will have the opportunity to get on the mountain,” said Rouleau.
Three weeks later, Rouleau was up skiing with some friends and ended up taking the wrong lift. While waiting in a lift line, he had a second encounter that sealed the deal.
“I ended up talking with some other friends while I was waiting,” said Rouleau. “They said, ‘This is our only day of the year to be up here, we can’t afford to come any more than this.’”
Rouleau began formulating the plan for an organization to help kids get access to this amazing mountain at our fingertips.
“I thought this isn’t fair that some people can’t afford to enjoy the mountain,” said Roulea, “even if they have regular jobs, sometimes they can’t make it work.”
Roulea skied to the administration building and went in to talk to Schweitzer President and CEO Tom Chasse.
“He said, “Make it happen, we’ll help out,’” said Rouleau.
The result? The North Idaho Mountain Sports Education Fund, or NIMSEF for short.
“The resort and the community have such a symbiotic relationship,” said Rouleau. “You can’t have one without the other. I thought it would be great to open up the possibilities to kids, to get them on the hill learning these skills that they’ll use all their life.”
The goals of NIMSEF are simple: get kids on the mountain. They offer a program that gives a greatly reduced tuition to enroll a number of kids into an 8-week a scholarship program. All children aged 7-17 who qualify based on economic need and live in Bonner or Boundary Counties can receive a season pass, bus pass, free lessons and equipment rental via Schweitzer and NIMSEF.
The tuition schedule is formatted to allow first-timers a low-risk way of starting their lifelong love of winter sports. First year children pay a tuition of $50, which includes pass, rental, lessons and bus fare. Each year after, the tuition goes up $50 per year until they reach the cap of $250 in their fifth year.
“The first year, we had 22 kids sign up,” said Roulleau. “The last four years we’ve had around 70 each year.”
As an additional learning opportunity, NIMSEF requires kids to earn their tuition.
“We believe that anything that is earned is valued more,” said Rouleau.
Kids can earn money toward their tuition in a variety of ways, including helping at home, doing chores for neighbors and friends. Some humorous methods, which kids put on their applications, include “cleaning the cat litter box forever,” “telling jokes,” and “doing whatever you throw at me.”
“I think it teaches the children the value of a dollar if they earn it on their own,” said Rouleau. “They come in with Mason jars full of change sometimes. It’s great.”
Rouleau points out that he is only one part of a group of volunteers and organizations that help make this nonprofit a success.
“Michael Boge is on our board of directors and he really does a lot for us,” said Rouleau. “A lot of local businesses donate prizes. The Ski and Ride Center at Schweitzer has given us a lot of equipment over the years. Without Kirk Johnson in the rental shop, this program wouldn’t be as successful as it is.”
For Rouleau, the program is more than just getting kids on skis. It’s about improving the fiber of our youth by offering healthy, drug-free alternatives.
“It gives kids an elevation of self esteem when they can ski,” said Rouleau. “A lot of social workers direct their kids to us because they see the benefits of skiing. They see introverts come out of their shell. They see kids building their own self confidence, doing better in school. Plus, when the older kids are up skiing, they’re not out causing trouble.”
When asked why he does the work he does, Rouleau was quiet for a few moments, perhaps thinking back to that first thank you letter that started it all. Choking up, he said, “I feel I get a lot out of this community, so I want to give back. That’s all.”
Though the enrollment period for 2016 has already passed, you can help the nonprofit succeed by donating money or equipment. Contact Nimsef.com for more information.
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