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Nonprofit adapts to offer virtual ski lessons in rural Alaska

The pandemic has caused Skiku to rethink how the group continues to serve its mission from afar this winter
Published: Nov. 30, 2020 at 12:04 PM AKST
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The non-profit provides ski lessons to kids in more than 55 rural villages across Alaska.
The non-profit provides ski lessons to kids in more than 55 rural villages across Alaska.(Courtesy Skiku)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As November draws to a close, the hours of daylight are diminishing quickly, almost as fast as Thanksgiving leftovers.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic forging into another month, the calendar and the growing snowpack indicate it’s time to dust off the skis and take on a new season. But if you live in remote areas of the state, ski equipment and lessons can be hard to come by.

Skiku, a statewide nonprofit, recognized the need for more accessible equipment and instruction and set out on a mission to “get Alaska skiing.” The program, now nearly ten years old, began in the Nana region and has now taught more than 8,000 kids in more than 55 villages across Alaska, according to Skiku’s Executive Director Calisa Kastning.

“Snow machining is fun. Boating is fun. All those motor things are fun, but to be able to cross your land with your own power and that feeling of accomplishment is really valuable,” says Kastning. “It stays with you lifelong, that confidence that’s built.”

The program’s name, Skiku, comes from the Inupiaq word for ice – siku – combined with the word ski. The nonprofit relies on volunteer instructors from Alaska and the Lower 48 as well as corporate and individual donations. The money is used to purchase and ship ski equipment to villages across the state, where it will remain for local use. The organization also covers costs for volunteer ski instructors to travel from Anchorage into rural areas of the state to conduct “ski week” instruction.

While the ongoing pandemic has forced many nonprofits to put educational programs on hold in 2020, Kastning believes there’s never been a year that has mattered more when it comes to teaching Alaskans new ways to exercise and enjoy the great outdoors.

“I think this year is the most important,” says Kastning. “So much has been taken away from these kids. Everything has been canceled. We’ve gotten to the point we’re just not even surprised anymore when an event or a race or activity is canceled,” Kastning laments. “This an opportunity to get them out and skiing and bring joy that something is not taken away.”

And while Skiku’s mission might seem to be an athletic endeavor by description, the organization’s executive director says, “the positive feedback we get is that we’re saving lives. It’s diabetes prevention. It’s keeping them healthy, physically and emotionally.”

It’s that kind of invaluable input that drove Skiku’s leadership to find a way to adapt the program this year and still fulfill its mission, determined to overcome the limitations and travel restrictions.

Skiku’s “Ski Week” will now take place over eight weeks this year, and the program will be conducted virtually, Kastning explains. “We’re releasing a video series. So, each Thursday, the teachers will either email, or if there are villages where the kids are in school, they will show it in class, drills and games and just exciting ways to use your skis,” she says with enthusiasm.

But far more important than mastering any drill, Kastning believes it’s the increase in time spent outdoors that is Skiku’s most valuable lesson.

“If you’re just at home all the time that really does wear on you. It wears on you individually and as a family, if you’re just stuck inside together,” Kastning admits. “So, finding ways to be outside, even if it is just your family. We have so many amazing trails that we can utilize.”

To ensure parents and participants continue to have a good experience and confidence in the program this year, Skiku has increased safety precautions.

“We’re safely facilitating with someone in the community. They’re a staff member or a community member,” says Kastning. “They do a ski check-out and check-in program for the kids, and we’ve got ways to clean the gear and make it as safe as possible.”

And while state travel restrictions prevent Skiku volunteer instructor Emily Schwing, of Girdwood, from participating in person this year, she hasn’t given up on helping out. She recently created her own fundraising campaign with a personal goal of raising $3,000.

“My goal was to get people sort of out of their own spaces, which we’re really stuck in right now, and get to thinking about what people can do right now during a hard year and a pandemic,” says Schwing.

She’s been encouraging friends and family to find ways to contribute, whether big or small. “This seemed to be just a great way for people to think about places that are far removed from where they are,” says Schwing. “Anytime you can make a kid smile and get them outside, it’s a worthy cause.”

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