Steve Larosiliere had his life-changing moment in Vancouver, looking out at the mountains at the end of a snowboarding trip. “On my last run of my last day, I thought about my 18-year-old mentee… he spent a better part of 14 years of his life in over 100 foster homes in New York City. He never left his neighborhood, never saw other parts of his city or did anything active. I thought, ‘if he saw these mountains he would lose his mind.’ He would be in complete awe and I knew he would love it.”

Just a year before, Steve had left his job running a successful marketing business to work for Mentoring USA in New York City. In that year Steve had helped build Mentoring USA into New York City’s largest site-based mentoring program. He was contemplating his next career phase when the idea came to him: What about a snowboard mentoring program? The idea developed quickly: Pair mentors and under-served youth to go snowboarding together. “Ideally they would both be beginners so that they could see each others’ strengths, weaknesses, fears, and joys over the course of a snow season,” Steve described his thoughts. “They would develop a strong connection and bond and as a result have a better relationship. They would acquire resiliency, determination, and success while snowboarding.”

Steve decided to make it happen. That Fall, he left his job and a long-term relationship, sold most of his possessions, and moved back in with his family. He had enough money and consulting jobs to last him three months. With the help of friends and supporters, Steve raised money, arranged for supplies, recruited volunteers and developed a life skills curriculum that taught kids how to set goals, overcome obstacles, and develop positive relationships. The first program participants came from Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan. The program, named Snow Mentor, launched in January 2005 with nine mentoring pairs. Over the next few months, Steve and his new partner, Sal Masekela, created an umbrella organization named Stoked Mentoring that would make all action sports accessible to inner-city youth.

Stoked Mentoring grew quickly; within a year, they had expanded from just snowboarding to a year-round program including snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing. A year later, they added a Los Angeles program. Stoked has since added an after-school program focusing on career skills, an action photography program that ends in a personal art show, and a workshop focused on building female participants’ self-esteem and self-confidence through action sports. Stoked, although still a mentoring-based organization, now considers their focus “youth development in the framework of action sports culture.” In other words, they are here to create Successful Teens with Opportunity, Knowledge, Experience & Determination (STOKED).

“Instead of being an inner city high school dropout, they can be a snowboarder from the inner city who wants to work in advertising, has a mentor, and is a high school graduate,” Steve explained. “Action sports are the perfect framework for allowing various forms of self-expression, creativity, communication and interpersonal skills. Action sports teach healthy risk taking, perseverance, resiliency, and working hard for what you want – be it designing a skateboard, riding a wave, or doing well in math.”

Stoked Surf Mentor participants

Participant comments bear him out. Ontae, who is in the Surf Mentor program, has learned better coping skills from surfing: “Every time there’s something like an obstacle… don’t look at it as something big. It’s just a wave, you ride it.” Leti, in the Skate Mentor program, has found both support and inner growth through Stoked: “I can open up with anyone [in Stoked] because it’s almost a family now, and we can easily trust each other. [From being in Stoked] I learned that I trust myself, I learned how to listen.”

NYC Snow Mentor Participants. 2009.

“In 5 years, we’ve worked with hundreds of youth in New York and L.A. and taught them valuable life skills in the process. Life skills such as goal-setting, networking, trust, patience, and how to overcome obstacles… There is a generation of 12-21-year-old at-risk youths who are growing up without options in life,” Steve wrote in The Huffington Post. “Many of them come from single parent households, live in low income communities, and have no skills to contribute to their community or their family. Often times, because of the lack of stability, family structure, and positive roles models, these youths turn to crime, gangs, and drop out of school because of lack of options. Programs like Stoked get kids out of their neighborhood for a day, surround them with positive role models for a year, and give them the resources to think and dream big for their life. Our aim is to pass on hope and opportunity to these kids so that they believe in a having a better life. They not only believe it, but they end up becoming the people they set out to be in our program.”

“What if someone told you that you could save the world by skateboarding?” the Stoked website challenges. “It’s really easy to live in your box or within your block,” expounded co-founder Sal Masekala. “But if you have got the stones to step out of that and try something new and become a part of Stoked… a kid’s life could be enriched in ways that he doesn’t even imagine… not to mention he’s not going to have more fun at anything else that he does than being a part of Stoked.”

Check out Stoked at: http://www.stoked.org

To follow Steve Larosiliere on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-larosiliere

All images used courtesy Stoked

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