Frank Willis was 10 years old when he was selected by Burlington’s King Street Center to participate in Chill, a snowboarding program that provides opportunities for at-risk and underserved youth to build self-esteem and life skills through board sports.
During an interview after school recently, the now-16-year-old junior at Burlington High School talked for more than an hour about his experiences growing up in Burlington and his involvement with King Street Center–a nonprofit organization in Burlington that provides more than 500 families and children with child care, after school programs, mentoring, and a teen center. His lively voice and dramatic sense of humor emphasize his passion for snowboarding and his gratefulness for the opportunity Chill and the King Street Center have provided.
“I kind of stumbled upon King Street one day,” he said, “and after that they couldn’t get rid of me.”
The connection to King Street has had a positive impact on Willis’ life. “Before I started going to King Street, I didn’t like social studies, English, or math,” he said. “People couldn’t even read my handwriting. But King Street helped me improve and discover that I love science and math.”
In addition to supporting Willis academically, King Street’s Teen Futures Program coordinator Jim Young nominated Willis, along with several other kids, to take part in Chill, a nationwide nonprofit program started by Burton Snowboard founders Jake and Donna Carpenter. According to Young, the King Street/Chill partnership allows underserved, foster, or group-home kids to experience a six-week, all-expense-paid snowboarding, team-building adventure that pushes participants beyond their boundaries and helps them gain critical life skills. Vermont’s participants ride at Bolton; though the program is nationwide.
Before Chill, Willis saw snowboarding only in movies. “My first day of Chill, I was so nervous. All I could think about was that I was going to wipe out. On the bus to the mountain, we learned the word of the day; whether it was leadership, respect, persistence, patience, or responsibility. Our challenge that day was to apply that word.”
After three years of Chill, Willis was asked to co-counsel the Chill group from King Street. Willis considers teaching younger kids how to snowboard one of the most memorable and rewarding moments in his life. “The first kids I taught how to snowboard, they weren’t getting it. But I stuck with them. I was like their basketball coach.”
Implementing skills he had learned from his Chill instructors, Willis was persistent and patient, instilling confidence in his trainees. “When they told me they sucked, I said, ‘Hey listen, I was just like you a few years ago, and someone else said told me I can do this, so you can do this too.’” And then on the bus home, when everyone is exhausted, the kids nominate one person who lived up to the word of the day. “We would honor them and clap and cheer and they got a prize.”
Willis’ hard work and dedication paid off when he was chosen to attend the High Cascade Summer Snowboarding Youth Camp. “One day I walked into King Street and Jim said, ‘Look what all your had work has done,’ and he showed me the invitation to High Cascade. I went crazy, I was so excited.” With King Street’s help, Willis completed the paperwork and earned money for his plane ticket. The journey across country was Willis’ first and he flew by himself.
Mount Hood’s High Cascade holds a week-long snowboard camp, where kids of all ages and abilities snowboard, play adventure games, hit the skate park, or just hang out with more than 200 kids from all over the world (eight were Chill kids). “I took away so much from that week. One thing I remember is friendship. The kids were so friendly, and the positive emotions were overwhelming. Even though I was the only Vermont kid, it felt like I was in Vermont, the people had the same mentality as here.”
From King Street to Chill to High Cascade, Willis’ “words of the day” became indispensable life lessons. As he considers his future, it’s obvious he’s well-equipped to inspire others to succeed in ways they never thought possible.