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Educating from top to bottom

Mica Cardillo learned to appreciate winter on Mount Ashland. Now he's giving a whole new generation of kids an introduction to snow sports.

Cardillo was a student at Southern Oregon University when his roommates lent him a snowboard.

"They took me under their wing," he recalls. "I learned at Mount Ashland. I have skied and snowboarded a few other places, but Mount Ashland is the only place I've spent considerable time."

"Considerable time" these days means work as well as play. Cardillo manages the ski area's youth programs. He's the one who coordinates the mountain's after-school ski and snowboard program, the school field trips that teach kids about winter in the mountains, and the summer youth service program, to name a few of his responsibilities.

The youth programs are a critical part of Mount Ashland's mission, both as a nonprofit organization and a self-sustaining business enterprise. Learning to ski or snowboard helps a child build confidence and self-esteem. It also creates enthusiastic young skiers and snowboarders who could one day become regular skiers or season pass purchasers.

Cardillo, who's been working on the mountain now for four-plus years, has seen how kids in the youth programs keep coming back to the mountain.

"I have people who now work at Mount Ashland who remember the after-school program when they were in school," he says.

"Kids that I knew when they were in middle school are now working as volunteers and chaperones. They have a real connection to Mount Ashland."

Winter sports are expensive enough that skiing and snowboarding are unaffordable luxuries for many families. The ski area has developed a program called "Give a Kid a Lift" to make sure anybody who wants to learn to ski or snowboard will have a chance.

Donors give the ski area money to provide "scholarships" for kids whose families can't afford equipment rentals, lift tickets or ski and snowboard lessons. Of the 1,370 kids who participated in the after-school ski program last winter, 204 — about one in every seven — got some kind of financial assistance.

Cardillo usually gives partial scholarships, with the intent to encourage the youngster to raise the balance. "If you give a full scholarship, a kid might not take it seriously," he says. "I usually ask them to pitch in at least $10."

He says many of the scholarships are given to kids who are hard workers in the classroom.

"We use (the scholarships) to try to leverage positive impacts," he says.

The donations also support the other youth projects on Cardillo's list of responsibilities, including the youth summer service program, which puts middle school kids to work during the summer doing restoration projects on the ski trails, and rewards them with a $100 credit for a season pass.

Donors gave the ski area just over $26,000 last year in tax-deductible contributions to support the youth programs. The goal for this winter is $40,000, and so far about $22,000 has come in. Cardillo hopes promotions such as the current raffle of an overnight stay at Callahan's and four lift tickets will bring in more cash to help more kids come to the mountain despite the sour economy.

"This year has been tough for lots of families," he says. "Lots of families who never thought they'd have to ask for help are asking for help. I don't have enough for everybody."

Raffle tickets are three for $5 and seven for $10. They can be bought online at the Mount Ashland Web site (www.mtashland.com), or at Callahan's, the Mount Ashland business office, or the main lodge at the ski area. Winners will be selected on Feb. 5 and March 5.

"The kids really enjoy these programs," Cardillo says. "They're getting a lot out of them. It's worth the investment."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com