Directly across the street from Webster Stanley Elementary School on Miller’s Bay is one of the best natural ice skating rinks you can find during the winter months.
As Steve Eliasen and Dr. Eric Smiltneek were gliding across the glass-like surface a few years ago, they wondered why more people didn’t take advantage of the resource – especially the school children directly across the street.
That one curious moment lead to a series of offerings in Oshkosh schools that are opening children’s eyes to new possibilities.
While Mother Nature delivered a shortened winter season in 2016-17, last school year, more than 1,300 children learned to ski or skate from Eliasen, Smiltneek and a small group of volunteers. The accomplishment is one that produces magical, tingly feelings for those who made it happen — a couple of outdoor recreation enthusiasts, many encouraging, open-minded educators, a few philanthropists and companies that value a community’s health and well-being.
Donations have provided skates, skis and other equipment to keep the program going, and growing.
Supporters Bradford and Maureen Lasky found the program to be the perfect fit for their passion for skiing and the philanthropic goals of their donor advised fund.
“I have a love — as does Maureen has a love — for the skiing world,” Bradford says.
Bradford spent a few years after college teaching snowboarding in Beaver Creek, Colo. “Seeing the kids progress and gain confidence, and being a part of that development, is really rewarding to see,” he says.
“I think what it does is it keeps kids active in the wintertime, which I think is a very important piece, and some of what it does — and this is what I saw when I was teaching — is the confidence that it builds in the kids, and to teach them to take a risk, to learn and to grow.”
Eliasen, an Oshkosh Area School District Board member and International Youth Sailing of Oshkosh executive director, and Smitneek, a physician, have been working to expose children to outdoor recreation for years.
In the warm months, International Youth Sailing teaches youth in public and private schools in Oshkosh how to sail. In the winter, the program morphs into skate and ski lessons for all public grade school students. In addition, each Thursday anywhere from 40 to 100 students from the Lighted Schoolhouse program at Webster Stanley Elementary skate as part of Dr. Eric’s Skate Club after school.
The idea for the ski and skate lessons came as Eliasen and Smitneek were cross-country skiing across Miller’s Bay one Sunday morning, admiring the amazingly smooth surface of the ice in the bay.
“Initially, we thought why don’t’ we get these kids, especially the kids right across the street at Webster, out on the ice skating,” Eliasen said.
The idea grew, and soon donors, including Bradford and Maureen Lasky, quickly stepped up to support it. Sponsors were excited about it, too, with ThedaCare supporting the purchase of skates, the NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin supporting helmets and Play It Again Sports helping with the bulk purchase of both helmets and skates. Expanding the program to each public grade school student was embraced by teachers and principals throughout the district.
“For me, without sailing and skiing, I would not be the person I am today,” says Eliasen. “I had a great career in photography and I don’t’ know if I would have had that without skiing.”
Eliasen and Smiltneek are persistent in their search for funding sources to acquire more equipment in more sizes as the program expands. The program has included Saturday morning learn-to-ski sessions at Garbage Hill, and a downhill ski club trip to Nordic Mountain on Sundays. Of course, Mother Nature has limited those opportunities this year.
Last school year, Eliasen also coordinated a ski trip for a small group of students to go skiing in Mont-Tremlant, Quebec, which will be offered again this year.
“Steve he has seen the success in the sailing program and that it’s possible to reach every child,” says Lasky, and that exposure may grow into a lifelong love and passion. Even the small moments can make a big difference.