Snowboarding was his passion. Making the sport more inclusive became his mission
When Brian Paupaw was 14, a local drug dealer he was loosely familiar with picked him up after school. The dealer knew some of Paupaw's junior high friends and often hung around the school. He offered Paupaw a ride home, but along the way, they made a detour.
The man brought Paupaw to an apartment where Paupaw watched women pack crack cocaine into plastic bags at the living room table while the dealer showed off his firearms. Paupaw says he was being recruited to sell drugs, and while a part of him envied the respect the dealer commanded, along with the money he often flaunted, Paupaw knew what happened to those who got into this line of work. He was raised in a rough part of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1980s, and every other day or so, it seemed, someone in the neighborhood was shot or stabbed.
Paupaw, who is Black, didn't want to dive into the drugs or the violence. He says he just wanted to skateboard but remembers thinking that it was just a "white kid" thing.
Before too long, he was dealing drugs himself, something he says he continued to do until he cleaned up his act and got into college. It was there that a friend got him onto a skateboard and then a snowboard soon after. As he looks back, it was an experience that changed his life in ways he couldn't have expected.
Snowboarding became his love and his mission
Now 47, Paupaw often sees his younger self in the kids he's trying to help these days. He and his business partner, Omar Diaz, 52, spend their weekends shuttling kids from Brooklyn to upstate New York and northwest New Jersey for a day in the mountains. Together, the two men have provided kids from low-income communities with the opportunity to get into snowboarding, keeping them on the slopes and off the streets through their Hoods to Woods Foundation.
More than 200 kids have passed through the program since it launched in 2009, according to Diaz. It runs for five weeks every winter. A bus picks up the kids in Brooklyn each Saturday morning and takes them to the mountains, where they're given everything they need — including equipment and lessons — to confidently navigate their way down the slopes.
The goal isn't to create the next Olympic gold medalist or X Games superstar, according to Paupaw. He sees the mission as bigger than that.
"If that's what someone wants to do, then there's an avenue for them, you know, but I'd rather focus on just getting these kids off the block. Just that one Saturday makes a huge impact," he says. "Some kids may not have the best environment. Some kids live in shelters. Some kids have parents that deal with alcoholism and drug abuse. This is a way for them to just leave that."
The program creates opportunity many kids don't have
Their work has also helped scores of kids, most of whom are Black or other children of color, gain exposure to a sport that has, for nearly all its history, been disproportionately white. According to data from the National Ski Areas Association, some 87.5% of visitors to ski areas during the 2020-2021 season were white; just 5.8% were Hispanic or Latino, and only 1.5% were Black.
That same lack of diversity in recreational winter sports has been on display at this year's Winter Olympics in Beijing, where Team USA has 48 athletes participating in the snowboarding competition, none of whom are Black and only a small fraction of whom are people of color.
Like other popular winter sports, the sheer price tag associated with snowboarding has been the primary barrier to entry for many children. The minimum equipment needed to get down the hill — board, boots and bindings — can run just shy of $1,000, a sum that doesn't account for necessities such as a jacket, snow pants, gloves, goggles, thermal layers and a helmet, totaling hundreds more. And that's just the gear. Lift tickets and season passes have soared in recent years, with skiers and riders paying upward of $200 a day at some U.S. resorts.
But cost is only part of the equation. Kenneth Shropshire, a professor of global sport at Arizona State University, says children have a hard time picturing themselves in sports like snowboarding if they don't have role models who look like them to set an example.
"You don't see yourself out there, and sort of as we watch the Olympics this time around, just the limited number of people of color that are there, you know, it's tough to imagine being someone that you can't see," Shropshire says.
It started with a shared vision — and lots of unanswered phone calls
It's a feeling that Diaz and Paupaw were all too familiar with when they first met in 2008. Paupaw, a motion graphics designer by day, was showing his short film Hoods to Woods, the story of his passion for the outdoors as a Black snowboarder, in a retail rental space in Manhattan. After the movie ended, he stood at the front of the audience and laid out his dream of sharing the sport with underprivileged kids from the Greater New York City area.
Paupaw wanted to share the experience, not just the sport, he explains, because when he's snowboarding, he feels like a kid again. All of life's problems just sort of disappear, at least for a little bit.
"Even though I had a decade riding prior to him, I was just doing it for me, for fun. But what he said that night resonated with me," Diaz says. He waited for Paupaw outside the venue and told him, "We should definitely make this happen, bring it to the community, 'cause we know that a lot of people that look like us will never have an opportunity in a million years to do this."
And thus the Hoods to Woods Foundation was born.
Getting the program started proved more difficult than either Paupaw or Diaz had imagined, though. It took nearly a year, but they finally got everything lined up. Diaz, who works as an internal auditor, admits that this is largely attributed to Paupaw's persistence to get others on board.
Once a day, every day, for weeks on end, Paupaw would call Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey to try to get discounted lift tickets for the kids. At first, those calls went unanswered. At times, he contemplated giving up. Instead, he doubled down and began calling twice a day.
The manager of the resort eventually called Paupaw back and offered free lift tickets for the kids. "If you want something, you gotta keep being persistent," he says. "The squeaky wheel gets the oil."
More than a decade later, Hoods to Woods has grown from four kids piled into a 1990-something Honda Civic on its pilot trip in 2009 to more than 20 kids bouncing around in a coach bus.
The foundation recently received its first-ever set of grants from the Share Winter Foundation and the outdoor clothing company Arc'teryx, but it has historically relied on donations and fundraising efforts to operate.
Fortunately for Diaz and Paupaw, individuals across the industry, including professional riders and brand representatives, have continually stepped up to lend their support.
"Since Day 1, there were so many brands and professional riders. So many people put their hand out and asked, 'What can we do?' " Diaz says.
That included his old friend, Russell Winfield, who is widely recognized as the first Black professional snowboarder.
About a year ago, Winfield teamed up with the now-deceased head of Louis Vuitton's menswear, Virgil Abloh, to design a limited-edition snowboard for Ride Snowboards. It was released at the beginning of February and has already sold out. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Hoods to Woods, as well as to Abloh's "Post-Modern" Scholarship Fund to support the next generation of Black leaders in the fashion industry.
"Snowboarding is a really important part of my life. It's my freedom. It's my inspiration," Winfield says. "I was lucky. My parents had the means, and honestly, that's how I did it. I couldn't have done it without them. I'm just trying to help further stuff."
The collaboration not only raised several thousand dollars for Hoods to Woods, but it helped with exposure. Diaz and Paupaw say they've received a tidal wave of support since the board came out.
Nevertheless, there will more than likely always be more kids than the foundation is capable of helping. "The wackiest thing for me is turning people down because we don't have enough," Paupaw says. "It's hard having a waiting list. Like, 'OK, well, if a spot opens up, we'll let you know.' That's the thing that's always bothered me."
"It's worth fighting for"
The foundation also doesn't have any full-time employees. Instead, it depends on volunteers like Serigne Diao to get the job done. The 21-year-old Brooklyn native spent six seasons with Hoods to Woods as a participant until he left for college in 2019.
He had never even considered getting into snowboarding before he learned about the program through his church. None of his family members or friends were into snow sports, and the price tag that comes with breaking into the sport was an enormous deterrent.
Diao says he volunteers because "snowboarding was such a big part of my life in terms of just how it changed my mentality of things and conquering new obstacles. I knew this was something worth keeping around and teaching younger generations with the same opportunity that I had."
Programs like Hoods to Woods didn't exist for Paupaw and Diaz when they were growing up. Diaz moved from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was 11 and got into snowboarding through skateboarding. He was constantly teased by his peers for participating in activities perceived as reserved for wealthy white kids. He did it anyway.
As for Paupaw, he believes things would have gone differently for him as a kid had similar programs been available when he was growing up. It's what keeps him going, he says.
"I see how important it is to never give up on trying to create something great for your community," says Paupaw. "It's worth fighting for."
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