On Tuesday afternoon, about 100 young skiers and snowboarders were spreading out at the bottom of Rotarun for lessons. They then took hold of the Poma lift for a trip to the top of the freshly groomed ski hill west of Hailey.
Aged 5-11 and largely from recent immigrant family households, these are the Rota-rippers. Most of them are first generation skiers who are equipped, transported from schools and trained by Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation instructors, all for free.
“Every kid should be able to ski in a ski town,” said Rota-ripper Program Director Barb Dunn. She grew up in Old Forge, N.Y., where her father was a ski instructor. The local ski hill was owned by the township, so all the youngsters grew up with access to the ski hill.
Dunn said most of the parents of Rota-rippers know nothing about skiing or snow sports. They are from Peru, Mexico and Guatemala and are invited to talks on snow safety and avalanche awareness.
“Most of these kids are Hispanic,” Dunn said. “And it’s the kids who are breaking barriers.”
Dunn worked with Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Executive Director Scott McGrew to get the Rota-rippers program up and running four years ago after noticing that there were no fully-funded opportunities for the youngest winter sports enthusiasts in Blaine County.
Rotarun has provided a cheap alternative for community skiing since 1948. McGrew said the Rota-rippers program fills a gap for young athletes whose families might not otherwise bring them to the more expensive resort in Sun Valley.
“The whole ski industry has just become so expensive,” McGrew said.
McGrew said the $36,000 annual cost of the program has been covered by a team effort of donors and organizations, including the John R. Kalik Memorial Fund, Kaz Thea and the Kids Mountain Fund, Christin Cooper and the Cooper Tache First Tracks Fund, as well as Rotarun Operations Manager Riley Berman.
Rota-rippers was inspired by the LASAR program for older kids, a volunteer learn-to-ski-and-race program started by Pat and Adele Savaria 15 years ago, McGrew said.
“The Rota-ripper program was launched to address a new and growing need in our community as our demographics have changed, and more and more children do not have a parent or grandparent to teach them how to ski or ride,” McGrew said.
Dunn said even during the pandemic, about 20 volunteers are showing up each week to support the program, including several high school and middle school students who donate their time. The program runs for two one-month sessions each year and provides 16 hours of instruction and free Poma lift time for each Rota-ripper.
“This program is changing our community on a daily basis,” McGrew said. “It is revitalizing what it means to be a mountain town and we are preserving our integrity along the way. It behooves all of us who have the opportunity to live in this magnificent community to support this program and others that focus on bridging these divides.”