NEW JERSEY - In the mountains of North Jersey, there is a ski resort offering unexpected opportunities for thousands of kids from New York City and the Garden State. These are students who would normally never have the opportunity to visit a ski resort or in many cases even see a mountain.
"It takes me out of my comfort zone, but in a good way," one student from the Bronx said as she tried on a pair of snowboarding boots.
"I did not see myself doing this. I'm not going to lie," another said we waited for their class to start.
There's another reason The National Winter Activity Center located in Vernon Township is no ordinary ski resort. Kids are the only people allowed on this mountain.
"No adults get to ski here, no parents, my staff only gets to do it when they're working. It's a sacred place for kids," said Schone Malliet, the founder and CEO of the Winter4Kids program that operates exclusively on the mountain.
"It's a physical facility, and a dedicated team of individuals who want to use the outdoors in the wintertime and in summertime, as a way to change lives and save lives of kids," he said.
The non-profit took over the mountain after the previous Hidden Valley Ski area went bankrupt.
"They (students) see the outdoors, and it's a little bit frightening, there's some trepidation, but we move them along in a way that says, hmm, I can't do this. I don't want to do this. To 'oh, I tried this. I've done it, and then I accomplish that it just moves the kids along a place where they can say there's something I can do," he said.
Winter4Kids partners with schools and after school programs, bringing in kids from some of the toughest neighborhoods in NYC, New Jersey and even as far away as Georgia.
They arrive by bus and after a meal, each kid is custom fit with gear for lessons ranging from snowboarding, skiing and cross-country.
Before heading out for the day, they also receive hearty healthy meals before and after hitting the slopes. Just about all of that food is grown right there at the resort.
"You get to see a totally different side of students when you take them out of the building," said Julie McGuire, an English teacher and avid skier from Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx. She's fond her students are learning things about themselves by navigating these new challenges.
"One student was saying to another student, well if you don't fall, how are you going to learn? So there's kind of like they're teaching each other (and) they support each other," she said.
Yes, they fall, that's the easy part. Getting back up and overcoming the many obstacles is what Longwood student Ashanti Acevedo says is the most rewarding.
"It just makes me feel more alive in this big world that you can get lost in," Acevedo said.
As the Bronx students were finishing up some of their early lessons, a class from Maxson Middle School in Plainfield, New Jersey was just getting started. Brian D'Antoni is a physical education teacher who's been trying to get his class enrolled in the program since before the pandemic.
"It's really exposing them to something new, and really opening doors," he said. He says there's been a difference in his students.
"Motivating each other encouraging each other and just seeing the progression throughout the three weeks that we're here."
You can see it and hear it when you talk to eigth graders like Dillon, who says this is something he's just always wanted to try.
"It teaches you discipline," he said. "At home, I have a hill next to my house and I've always wanted to snowboard and never have a snowboard."
Now he has a whole mountain.
Even though Winter4Kids has been operating for a few years, it seems things are just getting started. With the help of donations and grants, Schone Malliet says the program is expanding and making upgrades with plans to serve as many as 11,000 students per year.
"The idea is to make sure we can reach them, give them this opportunity and create a space for them to move past whatever challenge they are dealing with."