Taos Pueblo students hit the slopes with some help from the Charles N. Romero Snowsports Program for Pueblo Youth.
BY JULIAN DOSSETT PHOTOS BY LUIS SÁNCHEZ SATURNO
Santa Fe New Mexican
Taos Pueblo students hit the slopes with some help from the Charles N. Romero Snowsports Program for Pueblo Youth. By Julian Dossett Photos by Luis Sánchez Saturno T“he hardest thing was learning how to do tricks,” says Jadan Concha, a 16-year-old snowboarder from Taos Pueblo. He has excelled in the Charles N. Romero Snowsports Program for Pueblo Youth, which invites K–12 Pueblo students to take free ski classes at Taos Ski Valley. “To land, you have to stay loose and keep your board straight and flat,” Concha says, “so you don’t catch an edge or flip.” Concha was eager to perfect his tricks as he readied himself, along with other students and instructors, at the Rio Hondo Children’s Learning Center, the Taos Ski Valley’s ski school and child care facility, which serves as home base for the youth program. The group covered a short distance on skis and snowboards to reach the slopes for the day’s lessons in the spring of 2023. “Snowboarding isn’t easy,” Concha says. “But you put your mind to it and just keep learning.” To offset the steep expense that comes with ski days, the Charles N. Romero Snowsports Program funds five days of lessons for Taos Pueblo students. The program, which also covers the costs of clothing, lift tickets, and equipment rentals, kicked off during the 2021–2022 ski season with a variety of grants. Open to students in grades 4–12 (roughly 10- to 18-year-olds), the program has served 58 kids so far. The program’s namesake, Charles N. Romero, a member of the Taos Pueblo community who passed away unexpectedly at age 36 in March 2021, was a longtime and beloved Taos Ski Valley employee. After Romero’s death, David Norden, Taos Ski Valley CEO, helped fund the program honoring Romero and his 18 years working at Taos Ski Valley. The timing seemed right for the program. Sage Yardley (Taos Pueblo and Cheyenne River Sioux) had been working with the nonprofit Taos Pueblo Sports Alliance/Working On Wellness and was looking for ways to encourage Taos Pueblo students to pursue sports and outdoor activities. Yardley, who served as coordinator for the 2022–2023 Romero Snowsports Program, recalls, “We were finding that a lot of our kids were not signed up and enrolled for the usual after-school sports. So myself and a bunch of other parents and people from the community said, ‘How do we help fill in this gap? How do we create access for kids?’” A fortuitous seating arrangement on a plane trip back from the East Coast created a chance meeting between then Taos Pueblo community wellness manager Aurora Valdez and Constance Beverley, CEO of Share Winter, a nonprofit that helps fund children’s ski programs. The meeting sowed an important seed that, along with a contribution from the Romero family, grew into the Charles N. Romero Snowsports Program for Pueblo Youth. “It all just fused together, Yardley says. Inside the Rio Hondo Children’s Learning Center, Travis Baker, who supervised the center and special programs for the 2022–2023 season, organized classes and made sure that everyone got to where they needed to be for the day’s lessons. “If you can ride Taos, you can probably ride any mountain in this country to an expert level,” Baker said. Amid a concentration of steep terrain, much of it without any paths out, Baker was tasked with keeping students safe while they learned. “We’re a little over 50 percent advanced terrain [at Taos Ski Valley],” Baker says. “My goal is to give people the safest path to the lessons that the mountain teaches us.” Baker found that some of the lessons learned on the slopes reach beyond the ski resort. “There are no shortcuts,” he says. “If you take shortcuts, you’re gonna neglect certain fundamentals that are going to help you grow down the road.” The 30-year-old instructor found teaching in the youth program to be rewarding. “Personally,” Baker says, “it’s the most special program that I’ve been a part of." Marian Concha, a 10-year-old skier who returned to the youth program for the 2022–2023 season, quickly learned how to navigate the mountain. “Turning, you have to bend your knees, but not too much,” Marian says. While skiing her favorite trails, Honeysuckle and White Feather, Marian enjoyed being outdoors and looking at the mountain. Jadan, who can now land 180- and 360-degree spins on his snowboard and traverse the more difficult slopes, looked forward to learning backcountry snowboarding. “That’s where you go up in the mountains,” Jadan says, “somewhere where nobody snowboards.” He says the snow there remains fluffy and loose instead of compacted — much easier to “make my own path in the fresh powder.” Yardley, who worked closely with the students from Taos Pueblo in her role as a chaperone, believes the youth program accomplishes important work. “This is all about our youth and their access,” Yardley says. “They all deserve to be on the ski hill.” From children in grade school who are learning the fundamentals of skiing to high schoolers looking for more advanced lessons, the program offers that access without the high cost of equipment rentals and lift tickets. “These are our traditional native lands — I want [the students] to know you belong here,” Yardley says. And interest from the surrounding community is growing, as more people hear about the program. “Numerous people from the community, Taos Pueblo tribal government, parents, and places in the town have reached out and said, ‘I want to be a part of this — how can I help?’” Yardley says. “It’s all just been coming together for our youth.”