Behold, Jen Marony!
Jen runs the Los Angeles operations for The Chill Foundation, which is as cool as it sounds. Chill is a non-profit youth development organization with twelve sites across North America and their mission is to provide opportunities for underserved youth to build self-esteem and life skills through board sports. I had the good fortune to interview Jen about all the amazing things Chill has been up to. Prepare to get stoked.
For some extra stoke-age (and to see Jen in action), check out this video.
Who thought of the Chill Foundation, and what is it?
Jake and Donna Carpenter, the owners of Burton Snowboards, founded Chill in 1997 in Burlington, Vermont, to bring snowboarding to youth who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity. The program had such an immediate and profound impact that we have continued to expand into new cities and new board sports.
Chill is a non-profit youth development program with sites in 13 cities across North America. The mission of the Chill Foundation is to provide opportunities for underserved youth to build self-esteem and life skills through snowboarding and other board sports. Each year, we take 1200 youth to the slopes, the water, and the skate park. We provide them with everything they need to learn to ride: lift tickets, lessons, transportation, and head-to-toe gear. We use board sports to motivate youth to accomplish goals they never thought they could, while teaching them some of the most important lessons in life about respect, patience, persistence, responsibility, courage, and pride – our weekly themes within the program.
What do you do for them? When did you start?
I am Chill’s Los Angeles Manager, where I run all facets of the local program – from program development to fundraising to social media! Some days I’m at the computer sending emails and writing tweets, and other days I’m out at the beach or mountain riding with the kids! I began coordinating the local snowboarding program back in 2011 when the Los Angeles site was still a seasonal program. After being a part of two successful winter programs, the national office out in Vermont decided the Los Angeles program should go year-round and develop more opportunities for the youth. In 2013, I became LA’s first year-round manager and immediately began planning new signature events, recruiting Advisory Committee members, and setting up surf and skate programs.
What were you doing before you joined up with Chill Foundation? When you found out about them were you like, is this a real job? Am I going to get away with surfing and snowboarding for my job?
You nailed it. That was completely my first reaction! I had been writing grants for many years, first for a national media advocacy organization, and then for a local non-profit helping people overcome barriers to employment. While these were both fulfilling jobs, they definitely weren’t my calling! Snowboarding, surfing, and especially skateboarding are at my very core. They are my identity. Each has had a profound impact on my life and to be able to share that with kids – kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience them – I thought to myself, what a gift.
Can you share a story that comes to mind when you think about why the work you do is important?
Here in Los Angeles, we work with a bunch of schools and organizations in high-poverty, high-gang areas, as well as foster care agencies and group homes. Many of our youth have never left their neighborhoods, and in contrast to some of our other sites where it snows regularly, LA youth can go their entire lives without seeing snow. A lot of my favorite moments occur when the kids get to see snow for the first time. It may not seem like a big deal, but many of our youth have “adult-sized” worries and don’t have many opportunities to just be kids. That all changes during their first snowball fight!
One story that comes to mind involves our middle school youth from South Los Angeles. They live in the crime-plagued Watts neighborhood that encompasses four different public housing projects and their rival gangs, and believe me, there are not a lot of opportunities for these kids to go on wilderness adventures. Their school is smack dab in the center of the projects and, as a result of unspoken—or perhaps extremely communicated—gang rules, they aren’t allowed to talk or interact in a friendly way for fear of being called traitors or snitches or whatever. Many kids walk home looking over their shoulders, and far too many have witnessed or been the victim of violence. And yet, when our Chill bus pulls up, something changes for them. Once on the bus, what we like to call our mobile classroom, the kids can sit together, do activities together, play together and laugh together. On the mountain, they are free. There are no rivalries and no worries. Just the snow, the stars, and the chance to conquer something! With persistence, they are able succeed at something that is tough and extremely rewarding. And you know, for kids who don’t get to feel a lot of success in their everyday lives—that is a profound thing.
What are the girls you work with like, before and after?
As you can imagine, on day one, they are nervous! It doesn’t matter which sport we’re trying, we are taking these girls out of their environment, pushing them outside of their boundaries, and exposing them to some seriously new faces and places. One fifth grader from last year’s surf program had never been to the ocean. That was a very cool moment when she walked into the water for the first time. Every program, every year, I watch them grow week by week – each program is six weeks, so all our participants advance through a series of the basics (intro to equipment, what’s your stance, safety, etc), getting on the board, falling off the board, and getting back on the board! The fear begins to give way to curiosity, and then they realize how much fun they are having! By the time weeks 5 and 6 roll around and we’re learning about courage and pride, they make the connection that this is not just about snowboarding, surfing or skateboarding. It is much bigger than that. And as we talk every week, I ask them to connect these themes back to their lives at school and at home. How were you patient at school this week? How will you be responsible at home this week? It’s amazing how well the skills we are developing translate into every aspect of their lives. They are so much more confident at the end of the program!
I imagine a lot of girls get totally hooked on the things you teach them — how many keep it up? What are the challenges there?
Yes, a lot definitely get hooked. After our All Girls’ Skate Day last November, I had a teacher tell me that all the girls in her group went home and asked for skateboards and helmets for Christmas. That made my day! One cool thing about Chill is that each of our participants are able to come back and participate in any and all of our programs – so one girl could potentially snowboard with us in the winter, surf in the summer and skate in the fall. It doesn’t cost them anything to participate in Chill, so there’s no obstacle there. We also offer a Peer Leader program where youth can come back after two years of riding with us and become leaders in the program. We’ve had a lot of success with that program and as you can imagine, it adds a whole other layer of building up their responsibility, patience, and pride.
But yeah, there are definitely challenges, too. Snowboarding and surfing can be prohibitively expensive, and here in LA, we can’t do them in our backyards. A lot of our kids don’t have the resources to continue those sports right away, but we’re hoping we’re instilling a love of nature and a passion that will keep them focused on the future. And fortunately, we can skate practically year-round in our urban oasis!
What is the most rewarding part of working with the Chill Foundation?
Taking the kids to places they’ve never been, allowing them to experience the world in new ways, and showing them, in the most fun way I know possible, that patience and persistence pays off. Let’s face it, we can achieve anything in life if we just learn to get back up once we’ve fallen or failed. I don’t care if it’s learning geometry, being paired up in gym class with someone you don’t like, battling anger or addiction, not getting the job you wanted, standing up for yourself or for a friend – and I use these examples because these are all examples our kids in the program have talked about – the skills we’re teaching at Chill through board sports are developing and strengthening the skills all kids need to succeed. We show them that having respect, patience, persistence, responsibility, courage and pride will not only get them down a mountain, over a wave, or off a ramp, but also through the not-so-fun obstacles that life will throw at them. We spend our time together showing them they are strong, brave, resilient people, and when they catch the stoke, they begin to believe in themselves.
What’s next for you? For Chill?
In addition to managing the Chill LA programs, I love being outdoors, standing sideways on any board, hiking, running, and reading. I adopted two teenagers in 2012 and my 15 year old son loves board sports as much as I do. I’m earning a Master’s degree in Sociology in the evenings and I’m enjoying that process very much – though it does keep me at my computer more than I’d ideally like! Chill is heading into its summer surf program, and to kick that off, we’re having an event on the Santa Monica Pier on June 13-14, followed by an indoor rock climbing fundraiser. Never a dull moment!
How can we help out?
As a non-profit, we rely on the generosity of donors and volunteers. If you or someone you know would like to get involved with Chill, please reach out to your local program site manager. We’re located in 11 U.S. cities, plus 2 in Canada, and all of our contact information can be found on chill.org. If you’re not close by a Chill site and still want to help, you can also donate at chill.org.
Please support Chill so more youth can have these life-changing experiences. Young lives can take a 180° turn towards a healthier self when that life includes Chill.