Blessed Turns

Big Sky Youth Empowerment is using skiing to teach life lessons in Montana. The Dalai Lama is on board.

Not just in it for the skiing PHOTO: COURTESY BYEP

Words: Alex Buecking

Pete MacFadyen was a ski bum with an evening job as a therapist when he became frustrated with one-on-one counseling. “I felt like some of these kids would have been way better off identifying with skiing or snowboarding than identifying with the idea of ‘I’m a problem kid that needs to go to therapy,’" MacFayden says. "I was like, ‘You don’t need to come and talk to me, you just need to go out and ski every day and you’ll be fine!'”

MacFayden’s qualm inspired him to create the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program in 2001. That first winter, five adults brought 10 kids to Big Sky Resort to learn to ski, throw snowballs, and rip brodies in the parking lot. Rather than labeling the program’s at-risk participants as “kids who need therapy," BYEP’s strategy has always been to introduce kids to the ski community and help them identify themselves as a part of it.

The program now enrolls 84 kids from the Big Sky and Bozeman areas for 13 trimesters, or four 1/3 years, each. The application process is simple, but spots in the program are limited--less than half of the kids who applied last year were accepted. Kids with good grades and season passes aren’t considered “in need.” The kids who are enrolled in BYEP are outfitted with all of the gear that they need to succeed on and off the hill; skis or a snowboard setup, outerwear, and a laptop. Though the material benefits that the kids receive are notable, BYEP focuses on helping them realize opportunities that they can take advantage of in life. “The ultimate goal is for every kid to exit the program and graduate high school with an actionable plan for independence," MacFayden says. "That entails one of three things: acceptance to college or vocational school, full time employment, or obtaining service or volunteer work.”

Having fun on the hill remains a staple of BYEP’s curriculum, but MacFayden stressed that it's secondary. “We’re teaching them how to ski, and that’s part of it, but we’re really changing their lives because we’re helping them graduate high school and get jobs. Knowing how to ski and achieving sub-goals along the way just helps them be balanced people,” he says.

Another part of BYEP’s curriculum is mid-week workshops where the kids learn real-life skills, like how to apply for a job. “Last year we went to a sushi restaurant in Bozeman. We had the manager of the restaurant there to be like, ‘If you show up to apply for a job and you smell like weed, we’re probably not going to call you back. Actually, it’s better if you show up with a nice resume and then call us back,'” MacFayden says. Big Sky Youth Empowerment has been recognized and appreciated in the Bozeman and Big Sky communities since it began, but the organization’s worth has also been blessed by other folks around the world, including the Dalai Lama at a 2010 event called “The Unsung Heroes of Compassion.”

The paid staff operates in a workplace that every ski bum dreams of: no work on powder days. “I never want anyone to show up at work here and be like ‘This sucks. I could be out skiing.'” MacFayden says.

Though BYEP is on track to be operating at maximum capacity by 2016, MacFadyen mentioned that future plans for the program may include franchising. Watch out, there could be a navy-blue Suburban filled with screaming kids coming sideways into a ski resort parking lot near you.

Visit to find out how to get involved.