Ski trips close gap in access to winter sports for Black and Latino kids at Ponus school in Norwalk

Photo of Faith Marnecheck

NORWALK — When Vincent Stimpson's daughter told him she was the only Black girl in her snowboarding class, he took to heart her request to find more Black kids to join her. 

The conversation sparked the creation of the nonprofit Black Boarders CT, which supports opportunities for Black and brown youth to access the slopes.

And most recently, it led the math teacher at Ponus Ridge STEAM Academy to create and raise money for a ski club that’s given over two dozen kids the chance to take three field trips this month to Mount Southington in Plantsville.

To make the experience as accessible as possible, he planned an all-inclusive adventure. For one price, the kids received snow pants, goggles, snacks, and the bus trips to and from skiing for three weeks, and the skiing. 

He said his students do not have a chance to learn winter sports due to factors that make those sports especially difficult to access. This creates a different problem than the well-known achievement gap. 

“What about the opportunity gap?” he said. “Being outside and fresh air shouldn't be something that Black and brown children do only in the spring, summer, fall, right?” 

“We take a basketball out, that can serve 50 of us. Let’s take a soccer ball out, that can serve 50 of us. What do we do in the wintertime?” he added. 

Norwalk Public School’s district enrollment summary from Jan 1, 2023 indicates that 89 percent of the student population at Ponus do not identify as not white. Seventeen percent of the students at Ponus identify as Black, and 64 percent identify as Hispanic.

“Black and Latino people typically don't do winter sports, for varying reasons,” he said. “1. Who else in our neighborhood that looks like us, does it? 2. How are we gonna get there? And then it's super expensive.”

The club has given students like Chad Smart the opportunity to snowboard for the first time. 

“I always wanted to do snowboarding or skiing since I was little, so I decided to do snowboarding,” he said in an interview with the district's media relations specialist that was shared with Hearst Connecticut Media.  

Supporting the students

Choosing the team of adults to join the trip also proved to require strategy. Stimpson said that he does not know Spanish, but 20 percent of Ponus students are multilingual learners, per the district enrollment summary. 

“I need people that speak Spanish," he said. “There’s another gentleman who was with us, Dr. Lynch. We need women because there are young ladies. They need to see another woman. You need to see someone like you do something, therefore, you then think you can do (it).” 

The team consisted of Stimpson, Jim Lynch, who is another math teacher, Cinthya Perez-Martel — a multilingual learner teacher — and Karen Garcia — a paraeducator for multilingual learners, or MLL. 

The teachers agreed that the trip taught a social-emotional learning concept of helping one another and creating a sense of community. These students do not necessarily interact regularly at school, so the trip gave them the chance to meet new people who may be different from them and in a separate grade. Perez-Martel said that the MLL kids and English speakers embraced the opportunity.

“They were actually all together,” she said. "It feels good to see our community together. We don't see it here when we're walking around the hallways."

One of the kids who attended the ski trip, Emelin Arana, is an multilingual learner student who watched her skills grow between the first and second weeks of the program. Her translator said, “It was a little bit challenging the first time, but she likes extreme sports. So she was willing to try it.” 

These shared experiences and joy, according to Stimpson, lay the foundation for a better academic experience also. “When you create a sense of community, then all the learning and other things will just increase that much more because there's buy in and there’s care for people,” he said. 

Stimpson said West Rocks Middle School is doing a similar program, but they are going skiing four times. “But we're only able to go three, due to funding” Stimpson said. 

“Typically, students need between four to six times on snow for them to really learn what to do. So we didn't want to shortchange them, but we just don't have the money. We did a ton of fundraisers.” 

The Ponus ski club needs $2,200 to be able to go a fourth time. Donations can be sent directly to the business Venmo account @PonusPTO. Dave and Charlie’s Hometown Deli have also donated sandwiches for dinner for the students.

“I think other people should probably join the club because it gives them an opportunity to do new things and experience sports,” Emilee Magyars, a Ponus student said in the interview with the media specialist. “It’s a new opportunity.”