By John Copley
(ANNews) – When athlete and former international cross-country skiing competitor, Rebecca (Beckie) Scott, joined Spirit North in 2009, the idea was to introduce Indigenous youth to cross-country skiing and the fundamental joy of movement. Today, after taking over the leadership of the organization in 2017, that Spirit North initiative remains intact as the organization continues in its commitment to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous youth through the transformative power of cross-country skiing, sport and play.
“Our community-led programs get participants on skis to empower them with physical activity and lifelong wellness,” explained the three-time Olympian. “Cross-country skiing and land-based activities inspires meaningful change and, most importantly, connects youth to their own strength and potential. Today we are working in more than 50 Indigenous communities across Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and reach more than 8000 youth every year. An afternoon on skis can give youth a glimpse of their own potential. It builds skills and helps them to learn and grow. Sport provides physical, mental and social connections that can inspire meaningful, lifelong change.”
Thanks to the generous sponsors who support the initiative, Spirit North programs are free for the communities they work in.
“When we first started this program, we began with four participating communities,” noted Scott. “Today, Spirit North works in more than four dozen Indigenous communities. The number of Indigenous youths coming out to participate has more than doubled since 2015.”
When she first began working with the Spirit North program, Scott visited several northern Alberta communities and was saddened by some of the things she saw, especially the severe disparity of activities and opportunities for youth living in a rural setting.
“I was really moved by the Truth and Reconciliation Report published in 2015 and I just felt that I had reached my potential through the power of sport. I know the power of sport and what it can do for people and I think that every kid should have the opportunity to benefit from it – or at least to have the opportunity to take part in sport and activity. I wasn’t seeing a lot of that in the Indigenous communities, so this program was about creating an opportunity for improved health and wellness.”
Most of programs are run out of the communities participating in the Spirit North program; others are held at nearby nordic centres.
“Each community is different, so we tailor the programs according to what is and is not available. For instance, in some remote or northern communities there are no recognized ski areas so we cut paths through the schoolyard and through nearby land and it works well. Some of the communities we are working with in northern B.C. are close to actual nordic centres so we are able to utilize them for skiing.”
The program provides equipment, coaches and volunteers; funding comes via the generous support of corporate sponsors and through a grant from Indigenous Services Canada.
Volunteers are always welcome to inquire about how they can participate in the program.
“We love our volunteers and take applications all year round; we get good feedback from them and many come back to participate year after year.”
Spirit North’s 2018 season is a little more than half over so if you apply and don’t get aboard this year, the application will be kept for the 2019 season, which could be as early as late September.
“As long as there’s snow on the ground we are out skiing with the youth in the communities,” assured Scott, who said the season usually winds up sometime between late March and mid-April, depending on the weather patterns and snowfall.
Good mental and physical health is very important but it’s not Spirit North’s only goal.
“We also believe that sport is advantageous when it comes to academic achievement,” she noted. “I know that school attendance is up when Spirit North is there,” she chuckled. “We have heard comments from the schools that kids who participate in the program are coming back to the classroom with more confidence, focus and self-esteem. That they’re ready to try new challenges and are inspired by their experiences. We also hear that attendance goes up and behaviour issues go down during program delivery dates. I think we all inherently know that it’s a good thing for kids to be active outside and that the benefits are not just physical.”
Born in Vegreville, Alberta and growing up in nearby Vermilion, Scott began cross-country skiing at the age of five. She entered her first competition when she was seven. She attended the Junior National Championships in 1988 and went on to win seventeen World Cup medals in sprint, individual, and relay cross-country skiing events. A three-time Olympian, Scott is an Officer of the Order of Canada, holds an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Alberta, and has been inducted in four different Halls of Fame: Canadian Sports Hall of Fame; Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame; Canadian Ski Hall of Fame, and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.
Spirit North is a Canadian charitable organization committed to improving the health and well-being of Indigenous youth.
“We use the power of sport and play to engage, inspire and educate youth,” explained Scott. “Our goal is to spark inspiration and facilitate the development of community-led sport and activity programming that builds good health, promotes leadership, and increases the positive development of youth and their communities.
“We build and develop programs with the input of teachers, school administration, students, and community members. We work to ensure programs are built by the community, for the community, and we provide support and direction where needed. By working together, we build strong relationships with educators and community leaders to achieve positive, lasting change.”
Spirit North’s core methodology is focused on three key components to effect positive development for Indigenous youth.
The first is to connect or deliver regular outreach programming to students in their own communities and schools. Spirit North uses a collaborative play-based approach to engage youth in sport and activity. Their programs are designed to be active, inclusive and participation-focused as they build and develop skills that can be transferred back in to the classroom and the community.
The second is to empower or to recognize that the most successful programs are community led and owned. Spirit North works diligently to guide and assist communities in transitioning from introductory program delivery to community-led sustainable programming.
The third is to inspire: or to understand that in order to create positive change in a community, it is essential to create the desire for lifelong well-being from within each individual. More than just time on skis, Spirit North’s holistic approach includes information and resources on such important topics as mental health, good nutrition, land-based activity and physical literacy.
For more information read Spirit North’s beautifully compiled 2018 Annual Report at www.spiritnorthxc.ca.