HENNIKER, N.H. — On a recent Sunday morning at Pat’s Peak Ski Area, Richard Ward, the youth director of the Boston Ski Party, challenged anyone within earshot to point out something unusual about their surroundings.
There were, of course, the snow and ski runs. The beautiful, old-school lodge. The trees. The occasional glimpse at a family of deer. And hundreds of skiers and snowboarders.
“You won’t find anything,” Ward said with a chuckle. “We are part of the fabric here now.”
The “we” in Ward’s observation are African-Americans and black Caribbean Americans who live in Greater Boston and are members of the Boston Ski Party, a club and nonprofit that promotes skiing in black communities — particularly among children, with a goal of grooming black kids for Olympics-level competition.
From March 8-10, Ward and the Boston Ski Party will host YouthFest 2013, a gathering of young African-American skiers from across New England, at Pat’s Peak. The event, sort of a young skiers’ convention, will feature appearances and lessons by members of the US National Ski Team who are looking to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Kids from Boston, Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York have registered. YouthFest comes on the heels of the 40th anniversary convention of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an African-American-populated ski club, which was held recently in Chicago.
As Ward spoke, Alexandra Miller-Browne, 17, chatted up her sister Victoria, 14, and a girlfriend as they prepared to strap on snowboards at Pat’s Peak. Sarah Miller-Browne, 7, warmed up with friends in the ski lodge.
The eldest of the Miller-Browne sisters said she loves the social aspects of Pat’s Peak — that it’s cozier, in her opinion, because it’s a relatively small, family-friendly mountain.
“After I strap into my bindings . . . and ascend the peak, all sense of time vanishes,” Alexandra said.
“For a very long time, there was this perception of skiing and black people that we just don’t do it,” said Ward, president of Verge Philanthropy Partners consulting firm. “But the difference between skiing and something like the whole Jamaican bobsled team analogy is that blacks have a rich history of skiing in the United States, just not in large numbers. When I was introduced to skiing more than 25 years ago, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me on the slopes. But the more I studied it, the more I learned that in the Midwest and the Northwest, the tradition for us is greater. As part of our overall mission, we want to bring the sport more to our communities here in New England.”
While there are no firm statistics on the number of black skiers in the US, the National Brotherhood of Skiers says blacks in America started skiing in noticeable numbers in the early 1970s — largely thanks to workplace outings as corporate America ramped up diversity efforts.
Ward’s personal ski journey started at a corporate outing in 1987. A Boston native and former Olympic track qualifier (400-meter hurdles), Ward says he found the sport engaging and made a habit of it for years, always cognizant of the fact that there were few other people of color on the slopes around him.
Later, as a program director at the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club, he began taking groups of predominantly black kids to the Blue Hills Ski Area.
Then there was a weekend about 15 years ago when Ward, his wife, and friends went to Sunday River in Maine. By coincidence, the National Brotherhood of Skiers was hosting its Eastern Regions Annual Winterfest event there.
“We thought we were pretty good until [then],” Ward said, chuckling. “That weekend at Sunday River, we stumbled upon close to 1,000 African-American skiers who were there as part of the event.”
Ja’den Tran Fergus, a 10-year-old from Newton, agreed that it is an empowering and comforting experience to see other people of color on skis and snowboards.
“I like this because it’s winter,” the Williams Elementary School fifth grader said with a wide grin. “What better sport to do in winter? I like being in the snow.”
Ward says in addition to Ja’den there are approximately 80 other kids in the Boston Ski Party’s youth program this year, up from 12 eight years ago when the youth program was launched.
“The program began with just a dozen kids taking lessons for 10 weeks with one instructor/coach,” Ward says. “Many of our first group of youth are now in college.”
Last year, the Boston Ski Party partnered with Boston’s Youth Enrichment Services office to recruit minority kids for ski training, and youth program membership jumped.
Boston Ski Party youth members are trained in how to tune and care for their equipment, and they participate in recreational gate training and local races. Several members have or are currently participating in United States Ski and Snowboard Association races and are on the Pat’s Peak and NBS Regional and National Race teams.
Darnell Holmes, 18, wasn’t at Pat’s Peak on that recent Sunday, but he may be the biggest star yet to blossom from the Boston Ski Party.
Holmes, who started skiing when he was 4 and has been skiing at the USSA level since he was 8, was the first African-American to win a USSA sanctioned race in the state of New York. He’s skied with Olympian Bode Miller and other prominent US ski team members. And while he is busy planning for a career as a paleontologist/archeologist and environmental scientist, Holmes said he has a few more mountains to defeat on skis.
“One of my long-term goals is to go to the Olympics multiple times and win as many medals as I possibly can for the United States, hopefully with most being gold,” Holmes said.
Big achievements and big goals aside, he said skiing has taught him humility too.
“I remember my funniest moment was when I was first learning at Shawnee Mountain,” he said. “I saw adult skiers with their skis straight and not in a pizza, V shape.”
Holmes wanted to go faster, so he straightened his skis like the adults and went zooming down the run, eventually crashing into the safety net at the bottom of the hill because he didn’t know how to stop.
He escaped serious injury but said he thinks about that moment as a reminder to not take himself too seriously and to always try to do better.
“The coolest thing about skiing now is knowing that when I ski well, I am another step closer — before those two steps back! — to achieving my goals of multiple Olympic medals for the United States.”
His mother said that would be an achievement not just for her son.
“We’d always heard that black people cannot and don’t ski,” Denise Jackson said. “So it was a shock and a surprise when we first learned that we actually do. And I think it’s part of what makes Boston Ski Party’s efforts so important.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.