Ray Aponte would literally give kids the skis off his back to see them succeed academically. After three-plus decades as a teacher and principal, primarily in Minneapolis Public Schools, he continues a personal mission to bring youth of color into “green-space adventure sports” as the new director of adventure programming at the Minneapolis-based Loppet Foundation.
“Adventure programming is something that changes lives,” Aponte says, citing past experiences taking students rock climbing, or on trips to the Badlands and the North Shore. “People say that getting kids outside actually enhances academic performance later on, and the ability to make good decisions. It creates a different kind of mentality.”
While snow is on the ground, long-time cross-country skier Aponte passes along his skills to groups from all grade levels at Theodore Wirth Park, in Minneapolis. On a crisp January day, about 50 middle-school students from Bethune Community School, in North Minneapolis, file off a bus in snow gear. Inside the Loppet Trailhead building, Aponte is in his element as he gives the group an animated introduction to the day before they strap on skis to hit the surrounding trails. “Shuffle, shuffle, glide,” he says. “That’s what we’re working on today.”
This program is not just about fresh air and exercise, Aponte emphasizes, but also shifting perceptions. “I’ve seen the work this organization has done over the past eight to 10 years with Northside kids,” he says. “One thing I run into: Culture. ‘That’s not what we do, Mr. Aponte.’ We brown and black kids sometimes don’t get exposed to winter, and we’re afraid of it. One of the challenges I have is overcoming that, and making it OK to be outside. Then kids from the Northside can literally ski for 10 to 15 years.”