Life’s Lessons on the Slopes

By Shelby Deering | Photography by Holly Leitner

Every winter, the bus arrives from Chicago full of kids who are visiting The Mountain Top at Grand Geneva for the first time. Many gaze in awe at the hill as if they are looking at the Rocky Mountains. That’s how Chad Hart, director of Ski Area Operations at Grand Geneva Resort, describes the moment when the participants of Burton Snowboards’ Chill Foundation take their first steps onto the snow.

“It is absolutely amazing to see the reaction of the youth every year when they arrive at the ski area,” Hart says.

Based in Burlington, Vermont, the Chill Foundation chose to headquarter their Midwest programming at Grand Geneva Resort, where this season they plan to host over 100 kids ranging in age from 10 to 18. In a six- week period in January and February, 40-50 kids at a time will come for three- hour, twice-weekly sessions. They’ll learn to snowboard with the best of them and learn a lot about themselves in the process.


The Chill Foundation was started in 1995 by Jake and Donna Carpenter, the founders of Burton Snowboards. “Youth largely drove the growth of snowboarding and Burton, and they wanted to have a way to give back and provide opportunities for all kids to participate,” says Alex Bornstein, executive director of the Chill Foundation.

The nonprofit foundation has taught 25,000 participants to snowboard, but it’s not just about hitting the slopes. The program, with national and international sites, centers around a value-driven curriculum made up of experiential learning activities, reflection and discussion while paired with boardsport lessons.

Chill’s six core values, which are patience, courage, persistence, responsibility, respect and pride, provide kids with a foundation and structure for learning and growth, supported and developed through on- board progression and adult mentorship, as Bornstein explains. All equipment and programming are provided at no cost to participants, he adds.

Transporting kids from underprivileged areas to ski hills filled with sparkling snow and supportive people introduces them to an environment that is a world away from their everyday surroundings. Bornstein shares that program participants are located through social service agencies, foster care programs, mental health agencies, community schools and juvenile justice programs.

Chill Chicago was established in 2001 with the goal of developing a program in the Midwest, and in 2014, they reached out to The Mountain Top at Grand Geneva. The program immediately piqued Grand Geneva’s interest, and the first sessions were held in 2015.

“They were looking for a home for their winter sports program in the greater Chicagoland area,” Hart says. “We instantly saw it as a great fit into our area and the ski culture we like to support and promote. We are proud to be a community-based ski area. We have always said, ‘If you can, you should,’ meaning if you have an opportunity and the resources to be a positive part of the community and help support great causes, you should. Chill is a great example of that,” Hart says.

Bornstein reflects on Grand Geneva’s involvement in the Chill Foundation, saying, “The Grand Geneva staff is incredibly supportive, and they are outstanding teachers and mentors. The mountain itself is the perfect size for beginners while offering plenty of challenges for our youth as they progress as snowboarders. Its proximity to Chicago is also a huge bonus.”


Bornstein says that the Chill Foundation provides kids who are facing significant life challenges with “a safe and inclusive space where they can be themselves, physically removed from their day-to- day realities.” Something that can give participants a fresh start, a sense of hope and the chance to discover who they are.

It also invites kids to travel outside their comfort zones into what Bornstein calls “their growth zone.” He explains that as participants take on new experiences and work to overcome their challenges and fears, their comfort zones will expand. Their growth zone will eventually be included in their comfort zone, something that’s far from what may originally have been their “danger zone.”

It just so happens that snowboarding is a perfect activity for those looking to challenge their comfort zones. In fact, the sport is an ideal vehicle for the program’s values-based curriculum that weaves in coping mechanisms and socialization skills.

“Snowboarding, and all boardsports, are physically and mentally challenging and they require resilience and persistence every time you get on the board, regardless of how long you’ve been doing them. It’s a great analogy for life — you need to challenge yourself at your own pace, but in order to grow, you need to constantly progress as an individual,” Bornstein says.

The bus ride from Chicago to Grand Geneva is treated as “classroom” time in which the program’s adult mentors talk about the values and themes of Chill. For instance, in a video featured on the Chill website, Chicago participants are asked to tear a sheet of paper in half. On one half they’re instructed to write the ways they can learn to be responsible during Chill sessions and on the other half ways they can be responsible outside of Chill, at home and beyond.

Hart explains what takes place after the bus arrives at the ski hill. “We have our PSIA (Professional Ski Instructor Association) trained instructors along with the Chill Chicago staff teaching the groups how to ride through a series of lessons that are based on our progression-teaching techniques and using the Burton Learn To Ride system and equipment that we supply.”

Hart communicates a similar outlook to the one Bornstein shared on how snowboarding can teach life lessons: “Snowboarding can be like anything new. It’s out of most people’s norm; it can be intimidating, it can be scary and it can feel at the time like it’s an unachievable goal. However, just like everything in life, if you take it one step at a time, look at all challenges in a positive light, work hard and respect the path in front of you, you soon will be shredding the slopes on the hill and ready and confident to take on any challenge in life.”

Or, as a second-time Chill Chicago participant puts it, “Chill helped me to keep going and then I got it! I learned some of the tools I need to be successful and positive.”


The Chill Foundation’s reach goes well beyond the borders of the United States and Canada, to faraway places where there are kids who also benefit from the program.

In addition to their United States and Canada-based programming, Bornstein says, “There are currently programs in Italy, Austria, Czech Republic and Japan that are affiliated with Burton Snowboards but not included under Chill’s umbrella. That will soon change. This consolidation will lead to program growth in those countries as well as the gradual expansion of Chill programming to new countries in Europe and Asia.”

Here in the Lakes Area and in other Chill locations, generous funding spurs on the efforts of the program. Bornstein says, “Chill has thousands of generous individuals and corporate and foundation donors that support our programs through cash and in- kind support.”

Hart elaborates, saying, “Each location is sponsored by Burton and throughout the year they put on fundraising events to support operations. At Grand Geneva we hold an end-of-season party where a portion of every lift ticket goes to support Chill here.”

The 2020 season at Grand Geneva is sure to bring new experiences, along with a range of emotions, to Chill participants as they tackle The Mountain Top’s slopes. One thing is for sure: When boarding the bus to return home to Chicago, they’ll take with them more than snowboarding techniques.

If the new season is anything like the others, Hart says, “It will be absolutely heartwarming and inspiring to see the kids’ progress.” It starts, he explains, “From the very first conversations with them as they express how unsure they are about trying to snowboard; how they’ve never tried anything like it or they’ve never seen anything like it close- up. But before you know it, they’ve completed their last session and they’re snowboarding from top to bottom by themselves.”

“To see the progression of everyone and to see the self-confidence build and be supported is what it’s all about,” he adds. “It’s amazing to be able to give people the ability to expand their confidence to build their horizons — not only in snowboarding, but in life, and also to give them confidence that they can do and be anything they want to be in life through hard work and determination.”

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