Vanessa Duhrsen, 17, of Anchorage, Alaska, a senior at West High School, developed a sustainable after-school program to promote healthier lifestyles among students in rural Native Alaskan villages by teaching and encouraging them to cross-country ski. “I have grown up cross-country skiing,” said Vanessa, “and I want to share with others the joy and positivity that skiing has given me.” So, over the past two years, she has volunteered as a ski instructor for a nonprofit that conducts weeklong Nordic skiing clinics for kids in rural communities. But after joining the nonprofit’s board, “I began to realize that one-week volunteer visits were not enough to engrain skiing into village life,” she said. To address this concern, Vanessa created a program called “Skiku Schoolmates” to help communities maintain skiing activities throughout the year.
With backing from the nonprofit, she crafted a plan to move to the town of Kotzebue on Alaska’s west coast for four months to begin implementing her program. She secured housing from a state agency, applied for grants, solicited support from school principals, and gathered hundreds of donated skis, boots and poles. She’ll start with after-school instruction and coaching at the town’s elementary school, then give middle and high school students the opportunity to ski every day after school. She also plans to provide community leaders with the training and resources necessary to continue her program after she leaves. Vanessa strongly believes that an outdoor activity like skiing is not only fun and useful, but can help alleviate some of the problems prevalent in rural Alaska, such as obesity, substance abuse and violence.