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Stefanie Wilbur, a dairy farmer and home hospice nurse in rural Vermont, is on a mission to turn all the kids in her town into skiing aficionados. Her unexpected school skiing program in Orwell has reignited enthusiasm and community spirit among the town’s 1,200 residents, and has sparked several new community ventures. Wilbur tells us about how she pulled it off, how she stays sane during those long Vermont winters, and the surprising initiative of Orwell’s young community advocates. (“Get It Done” is a series on the people in rural communities who do just that.)
Lorin Ditzler: Tell me about your idea to get 100 children on the slopes. People who aren’t from Vermont might assume that everybody’s just skiing all the time up there, but this was an unusual undertaking. Why did you want to do this?
When I was a teenager, skiing was a big part of how we were able to enjoy the Vermont winters – ’cause they’re cold and they’re long and if you stay inside you go crazy. My school used to do an honor roll pass to get a season’s pass to go skiing. With that, I was able to ski every moment of every day.
Stefanie Wilbur: There are barriers to the sport – it’s expensive and people can be very intimidated by it. We had 102 K-8 students total last year and 58 of them were skiing for the first time. We provided six lessons over the course of the winter, and our goal is to do it every year, so that by the time a kid reaches eighth grade, they’ve been skiing almost a decade. It’s really neat to see children that wouldn’t flourish in an academic environment, flourish on the mountain.
Was it difficult to get the program started?
The school board looked at me like I was crazy, but they said if I raised the money that they would allow it.
I just started cold calling. I called every person I’ve ever known. I called the grocery store, I called the trash company. I started fundraising in the middle of November and by the end of January we had [met our goal of] $11,000. We had donations of $50 to $1,500 and everything in between. People were so happy to be a part of it. They remembered similar programs when they were a kid. It had to be something free to everyone, and not out of reach for anyone.
I got to go back to the [school] board and I think they all fell over. They were very happily surprised.
I take it this was a pretty unprecedented achievement?
It really, really surprised a lot of people. There’s always a few naysayers. Everyone was very supportive, they just weren’t really sure how we could do it. But it just kind of snowballed. And people got on board.
I went to the school board yesterday to ask them to put the money in the budget for next year. We had easily over 20 parents and students that came to say that we had to keep the ski program. People stood up and said “this is our program for our students.”
I actually had a fifth grader – she went into her class and said “I’m going to the board meeting tonight, can you guys give me some quotes to read to the board?” She got a quote from every student in the class.
We were really blown away by everyone’s response. Hands down, I was most blown away by the farming community’s support of this. They wanted farm kids to get out of Orwell and get on the mountain.
How did this big success affect the community? Did it carry over to other things?
Once you have a structure and a successful event, people look back and say – I can do that.
My main goal wasn’t to ski but to build community spirit. As surprised as people were, they were also happy. And they looked around and said – I donated and you donated and we support the same cause. Because of the ski project we built the booster club: a pool of volunteers and a place where we could unite everybody and bring common ideas together.
Now we have people saying: What do I want to do in Orwell and how can we make that happen?
What are some examples of other projects you’ve gotten out of this momentum?
Some sixth grade boys said to me, “We’d like to have an after-school basketball clinic.” They did a clinic for K-2 and it was such an amazing rewarding experience. And I love that they came to me. Before, we were stunted with those [ideas for after-school programs] because you have to have liability insurance of $500, but we centralized that [with the booster club] so people can do it.
Or like, I said “let’s host a summer athletic camp here, instead of always sending [the kids] away to other towns.” And the light bulb goes off. And now someone else is stepping up to do that with support from the booster club.
We had a “Paint & Sip” fundraiser recently and we made $600-$700. And people had fun. They supported the school, they supported each other. And they had something to do in Orwell.
You’re not originally from Orwell – what brought you here and what do you like about it?
I’m from San Francisco. Don’t ever tell anybody that. [laughs] I moved to Brandon, Vermont, with my family when I was 15. After I married my husband in 2010, we looked at farms all over the state…we were lucky we found this one.
Orwell is a great place because it has a center of town and it has an amazing sense of community. People want to live here, they don’t have to live here. Nobody complains that they’re “stuck here.” Lots of people leave Orwell and choose to come back. A lot of places are concerned about losing people, but we’ve managed to retain.
I couldn’t have done all this without that amazing community….and my wonderful husband who always stands behind me I matter how nuts I seem.
Orwell, Vermont is a rural town on the southern end of Lake Champlain, next to the Vermont-New York border. Orwell’s town government is led by a Select Board of six residents elected at the annual Town Meeting. On average, the population here is older, (a median age of 46.4 vs. 37.6 nation-wide) and more financially stable – Orwell has a lower poverty rate than both the state of Vermont and the country as a whole (8.4% in Orwell vs 15.5% nation-wide). Ninety-five percent of Orwell’s 560 workers commute to jobs outside town, including larger nearby cities such as Middlebury and Burlington. The center of town has a K-8 school, a bank, a general store, a library, a post office, a gas station, a restaurant, two churches, and one stoplight.