I recently visited the National Winter Activity Center in Vernon, New Jersey. The former home of the Hidden Valley ski resort, and the closest ski facility to New York City, this beautiful mountain is the first facility dedicated exclusively to winter activities for young people. That’s right: You will not any see adults (except for a coach or member of the ski patrol) on the slopes, only kids who are between the ages of six and 17.
The mission of this unique nonprofit organization is to improve the lives of all youth by providing kids access to winter activities. The goal is to eliminate obstacles to participation, whether those are due to geographic challenges, a lack of economic resources, or a lack of knowledge about the program. Coaches help kids with skill development and mentor them through the “Elev8” learn-to-ski program. The center partners with youth organizations such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, and local schools. The goal is to introduce 5,000 children to winter activities over the next few years and retain 75% as lifetime enthusiasts.
The NWAC Center has made a tremendous investment in technology, with fully automated snowmaking equipment, the most technologically advanced in the area. They have three enormous new snow-groomer vehicles, a competition venue, skill development trails, a cross-country hill, and livestream cameras with time-lapse video to record all the action. It truly is a winter sports playground.
I sat down with the center’s CEO and founder, Schone Malliet, to learn more about his inspiration for opening the facility, how he hopes to transform the lives of the kids who participate, and his outlook on winter sports and health. He told me that having grown up in the Bronx, and then being fortunate enough to become exposed to skiing, he became inspired to make sure that all kids could enjoy that same opportunity.
“Every day is a special day,” Malliet explained. “When kids arrive, they usually get off the bus, we get them into the lodge, they either get a snack or a meal, get their equipment on, meet their coach, and get out to the snow in 18 minutes. Then they go for about 90 minutes of lessons. They will come back in and usually discuss values. We build everything around values that help them to be better—like humility, responsibility, and respect. [And] humor, because it’s always fun to laugh at yourself. We build all of that in, they get a snack, and they head back to their homes.”
This is a very well-organized operation that maximizes the amount of time these kids spend outdoors enjoying winter sports. Malliet understands that kids who grow up in urban areas simply are not exposed to and do not see many opportunities to get outside in the winter. It’s often easier to do what you see. “The other thing is access,” Malliet said. “And for us, here, we want to remove any barriers to access whether it be money, geography, getting there, or even just knowing it is there.”
When asked how it felt to know he was changing the lives of kids every day, Malliet said, “The opportunity to give back and use my experiences to make a difference is the best thing I could ever do.”
Malliet hopes these kids “continue to challenge the traditions and continue to challenge anything that’s out there, to go for dreams. He added, “I know that most of the things I accomplished were because I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that. It’s amazing that if you remove barriers from kids—whether they are real or artificial—what they can accomplish. I hope that all of them can get the chance to challenge themselves and do new and different things.”
The kids I met at the center were all having a great time and enjoying their day on the mountain. They were excited about learning to ski. Malliet’s vision is working, and the transformation of the former Hidden Valley resort into an enriching experience for many kids has become reality.
Photograph by Matthew McCann/National Winter Activity Center