Before being accepted to the Big Sky Youth Empowerment project, Dawson Schmidt had been bullying other kids in his eighth-grade class.
“Back then, I was kind of an angry, socially awkward kid who didn’t care about anything,” said Schmidt, now 18 and a senior at Bozeman High School.
In four years with BYEP’s mentoring program for “high-risk” teenagers, which combines outdoor adventures with character education, Schmidt said he grew up.
“If I was not accepted into BYEP, I’d probably be on probation, in jail, or somewhere worse,” he said.
He works at a local restaurant, hopes to go to college to study business management, and he talks about his problems rather than taking out his frustrations on his peers.
Founded in 2001, BYEP takes a creative approach to difficult teens. The kids go skiing, whitewater rafting and rock climbing while also working with a mentor and taking classes to learn life skills.
“The goal is really to work with local at-risk youth and provide them with an opportunity that will allow them to hopefully graduate from high school and have a plan that leads to independence,” said Pete MacFayden, founder and executive director of BYEP.
A licensed counselor, MacFayden started BYEP in 2001 because he felt he could reach teenagers better by teaching them how to ski or snowboard.
Traditional mental health services didn’t work well for teens, he said. Teenagers don’t want to be forced to go to therapy and they do better surrounded by a positive peer group.
With BYEP, kids clamor to get in. Every year, BYEP gets about 75 applications. Only about 25 of them are selected to participate in the scholarship-based program.
Teens are selected to participate in BYEP based on risk factors ranging from socioeconomic status to alcohol and drug use, problems with the law, challenges in school and family issues.
BYEP originally only served eighth- through 10th-graders with the Approach program.
One night a week, those students take a life skills class and every Saturday they go skiing or snowboarding with mentors at Big Sky Resort.
“We’re really looking at — in the first two years in the program — some soft of life skills,” MacFayden said. “Communication, conflict resolution, relationships, how to cultivate respect, how to be a respectful person.”
Ashlyn Chipley, 17, grew up in a single-parent family and has had multiple brain surgeries to treat hydrocephalus, a medical condition also known as “water on the brain.”
“I started having surgeries when I was 3 weeks old, and between then and now, I’ve had eight,” she said.
She was accepted to BYEP in eighth grade.
“I’m a lot more outgoing than I was before,” she said. “I’m still really shy, but compared to before … I would probably be shaking and sweating right now if it wasn’t for the social connection from BYEP.”
Chipley works part-time as an activities aid at a local nursing home. She hopes to get her certified nursing assistant license this summer and eventually get a degree in physical or occupational therapy.
Without BYEP, Chipley said she’d probably be OK.
“But I feel like my life wouldn’t be as complete,” she said.
Two years ago, BYEP launched the Crux program for juniors and seniors.
“The youth actually named it the Crux based on their experience rock climbing because the crux refers to the hardest part of the climb,” MacFayden said. “The kids felt like grades 11th and 12th were the hardest part of their adolescent development.”
The Crux is primarily focused on academics, continued character development, independent living skills and stewardship to both the community and the greater environment, he said.
Crux participants ski every other week and take classes one night a week on the Montana State University campus in financial literacy, resume writing and career planning.
Seventeen-year-old Nikki Simmons joined BYEP in 10th grade.
Simmons grew up in a family with drug problems. She lived with her grandparents and friends for a time.
“It was good finding support that I didn’t have,” Simmons said. “We would do teamwork, talk about everyone’s problems and days … and it just kind of opened my eyes. It helped me like get it all out and not keep my pain in.”
Simmons plans to attend MSU in the fall to study business. She works at a local pizza shop and often can be found working out at the gym.
“(BYEP) helped me realize that I can turn my bad situation into opportunities for life and for success,” Simmons said.
There are perks to being in BYEP. Each student is equipped with skis or a snowboard, lift tickets and opportunities to earn scholarships to travel abroad to do service work. It’s part of the motivation.
BYEP runs on donations from private individuals, gear companies and Big Sky Resort, as well as grants and fundraising events. Annually, about 60 people volunteer to be mentors with the nonprofit.
The students get opportunities for growth at no charge.
“We’re kind of giving these kids … a leg up and some ways to sort of actualize their dreams,” MacFayden said.