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On a recent cloudless Sunday morning, a group gathered at Lindley Park Pavilion, put on cross-country skis and boots and bundled up against the frigid temperatures.

The group stood in a circle learning the best way to fall and how to make a pizza shape with their skis to get down steep hills. They practiced turning around while wearing skis, struggling to rotate but managing to make the maneuver without toppling.

Then they took off toward the groomed trails near the Lindley Center and Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital.

The group was part of a new Gallatin Valley YMCA program to get middle school students outside by reducing the financial barriers that often accompany outdoor activities.

“It makes me sad that we live in this beautiful valley but not all kids get the opportunity to take advantage of it,” said YMCA CEO Andrea Stevenson. “Skiing is out of reach for a lot of people in this valley because it’s so expensive, and we wanted to do what we could to change that.”

The program began Jan. 26 and runs through March 8. The students spent the first three Sundays learning from Bridger Ski Foundation instructors on the groomed trails in Bozeman. After taking Presidents Day weekend off, they will head to Bridger Bowl for the final three weeks to try downhill skiing.

During the first three weeks, the students went from having never tried cross-country skiing or only having done it a few times to taking off in small groups, zooming around confidently as they chatted with each other.

“Our number one goal is to get kids outside, but just as important is that middle school can be a hard age where kids feel a lot of stress and anxiety, so we want to show them that they can accomplish things that may seem really scary at first,” Stevenson said. “We hope they can carry forward the knowledge and confidence that they did something challenging.”

After skiing in the morning, the students learn leadership skills in the afternoon. One Sunday, they received a presentation from the Montana Mountaineering Association on outdoor skills and safety.

Round House Ski and Sports Center provided equipment to the students at a reduced price, and Stevenson secured grants from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and the Bob & Mary Sierra Family Foundation, so the students only have to pay a registration fee ranging from $135 to $250. Scholarships are available to help cover the fee.

Because this is the first year, the YMCA capped the program at 10 kids ages 11 to 14 from West Bozeman, Belgrade, Manhattan and Four Corners, areas that are just far enough away from groomed cross-country ski trails and Bridger Bowl that it can be challenging for families to take their children to those places, Stevenson said. It also gives the kids a chance to meet peers from other parts of the Gallatin Valley.

To bring the students to Bozeman and Bridger Bowl, the YMCA is using a small school bus, but next year, the organization hopes to expand the program and is looking for donations to rent a larger bus and subsidize the cost of skiing and equipment for additional kids.

When Evan Weiss, executive director of the Bridger Ski Foundation, heard about the YMCA’s efforts to start the new winter outdoor program, he jumped on board.

“We’re always looking at ways to get more kids from the area around Bozeman outside,” Weiss said. “I don’t think a lot of these kids would be able to learn these skills and have these opportunities without this program.”

For Bridger Bowl, participating in the YMCA program was “a no-brainer,” said general manager Bob Petitt.

When the students take to the slopes this weekend, they’ll start by learning basic skills in the base area with ski school instructors. Then they’ll get free time to ski.

“We see the YMCA program as an extension of what we do for students,” Petitt said. “My goal is just to get kids outside and skiing, and Bridger does everything we can to make this happen. We want to introduce them to the sport, which maybe they’ll go on to love for their whole lives.”

The YMCA is already looking toward creating a similar outdoor program in the summer that would introduce kids to fly-fishing, hiking, paddleboarding and other activities they may not have had the opportunity to try because they are expensive and require transportation.

“We’re hoping that going forward more groups join us with this program because it isn’t possible without partnerships,” Stevenson said. “We also hope more kids are able to participate and get to experience the amazing outdoor opportunities this valley has to offer.”

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Perrin Stein can be reached at or at 582-2648.