Novice skiers and snowboarders listen, fidget, and glide their way into the new world of mountain sports. (Photo by Justin Roshak) (click for larger version)
February 15, 2017FRANCONIA —The buses arrived at 9 a.m. sharp. One or two parent-volunteers directed traffic. By 9:10, the first dozen kids were lined up in the ski shop. I met Loren McCusker (Lakeway Elementary, grade five) as he was standing up in snow boots for the first time. How did they feel, I asked.
"Hard, compared to the usual boots I wear," he replied.
He took a few steps and added, "Hard to walk in."
How did he feel about skiing for the first time?
He thought about this for a moment. "Well, there's fresh powder."
Classmate Marley Nason summed up his state of mind: "Excited and nervous at the same time."
I passed a couple of students on the stairs down to the lodge basement, clutching the handrail and taking each heavy, booted step one at a time. Most of the students looked excited: fidgeting, smiling, tapping each others' helmets to see how it felt. One or two admitted they were feeling a little nervous too: Luca Rossi (Lakeway, grade five) had thought a lot about the challenge ahead: his primary concern was "Going too fast."
I asked him why he'd chosen to ski, instead of snowboard.
"I think it'll be easier to balance with two poles," he replied.
Downstairs was highly-productive chaos. Nancy Annunziato directed traffic, coordinating groups who needed gear, and dispatching them out to the slopes in turn. A teacher for 26 years, now six years retired, she is the founder, president, and all-around heart and soul of the Secret Sock Society. The Franconia-based charity, now 11 years old, grew out of her experiences as a teacher and her vision of a world where every child can enjoy the great white wonder of the North Country.
As an elementary teacher, she saw firsthand that students don't always have proper winter clothing. She saw students forced to stay inside at recess, day after day, because they didn't have a coat, or a pair of boots, or a pair of warm socks.
Even though snow and winter sports are part of the DNA of our local communities, she says, "It became apparent to me, although it's part of the culture, it's pay-to-play."
For some North Country families, although we may not like to think about it, the cost of a good set of winter clothes is a luxury. She decided to do something about it.
The Secret Sock Society started out as it's name suggests: a way to anonymously connect local donors with children who needed winter clothes. For some, that might indeed be a simple pair of socks. For others, it might be snow pants or good, sturdy boots. Recipients are privately identified by school nurses, and the needed items and sizes are bought by the Society (who proudly report to be "skilled at getting a bargain") or by the "Snow Angel" donors themselves. Every child has different needs, but the cost tends to run from $50 to $100: a modest sum for the winter full of fun it provides. It is, she says, ultimately a "solvable problem," so long as someone does the work and doesn't wait for society to spontaneously provide solutions. We are society, after all; we can provide.
The Society's board are all volunteers; no one draws any kind of salary. Every dollar goes back into the Snow Angels program, or the Sock program (which provides good non-cotton socks), or the new Snowsports Field Trip, which I witnesses first hand. Donors started off as parents, skiers, and friends. I met Casey Hadlock (parent, skier, volunteer), gearing up to take a group of students out onto the slopes. He and other parent/volunteers will ski with the kids all day. Real beginners will start with a lesson, but everyone skis from ten until two, a full immersion.
The ski program is new; its inaugural 2015/16 winter season was funded by a North Face Explore Fund Grant. It gets whole classes out on the slopes together for one day, guaranteeing that every child has the chance to experience mountain sports. For Annunziato, it represents vital exposure to something new. Half of the fifth graders at Cannon on Tuesday, all Littleton Lakeway Elementary students, had never set foot on a mountain. Looking back on her own life, Nancy Annunziato is grateful for the experiences that she only had because someone showed her. How many of us can point to something we love that, without a friend or family member's introduction, we would never have discovered?
Skiing is so fundamental to our North Country life, Annunziato says, and "I firmly believe that every child deserves to have every opportunity."
The program is an all-hands effort. The Lahout family provides the Society discounts on winter clothing, and bus transportation is funded by the New Hampshire Ski Museum. Cannon Mountain offer a New Hampshire Youth Group rate, and donates a season pass that will be raffled off. Worth $500 to $900, it's raffle proceeds will cover the whole cost of one day's field trip. This year, the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, donated $3000. Another, larger and anonymous grant was made recently, and will keep the ski sports program going for several years. Both grants will allow the Society to expand the number of students who can participate. This year, one hundred and eighty five students from at least three area schools will take to the slopes.
Looking forward, Annunziato would like to expand the field trip program to new communities, as well as expand the reach of the Snow Angels clothing program. The latter is the keystone of the Society's work, she says, because winter clothing makes everything else possible. She doesn't know which of the bundled, booted newbies will become lifelong skiers.
"They all think they're experts, until they get on the slopes," she says.
The results speak for themselves: at 10:05 a.m., a batch of students tried out their gear under the direction of a Cannon instructor. Each step was slow, clumsy, uncertain, but by the end of the day, they had learned to fly.