Alumnus helps build snowboarding hills – and character – in NWT

York alumnus Shawn Alli (BA ’07) wants to change the world. He wants to see the proliferation of compassion move like a wave from country to country. He wants to end misery, poverty and starvation – a lofty set of goals, he knows. Which is why he’s starting small, trying to make a difference in the tiny aboriginal community of Wrigley in the Northwest Territories, next to the Mackenzie River, where the Mackenzie Highway ends.

Left: Shawn Alli at the top of the snowboarding hills in Wrigley, Northwest Territories

To get there from Toronto requires a plane trip to Edmonton, another to Yellowknife, a third to Fort Simpson and a final trip on a small plane to Wrigley Airport or, if the river is still flowing, a ferry ride and a two or more hour drive up the Mackenzie Highway.

It is there, as recreation coordinator of the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation Youth Centre, that Alli is centring his hopes on the children, ages four to 15, who use the centre. He believes his work there extends beyond the organizing of sports and activities to helping instill principles, morals, respect and self-esteem in his young charges.

“I’m trying to get them to be self-motivated, to better themselves in life, in art, in sports, in whatever,” says Alli. “I’ve talked to them about university, but they have to make it through high school first.”

Right: Shawn Alli (left) with James Allan, senior director, alumni, in York’s Alumni & Advancement Services

One of the ways he is trying to make a difference in the lives of the 25 or so kids he works with is through two new snowboarding hills. It’s a way to take advantage of the huge amounts of snow while keeping the youth active, interested and engaged in something healthy. Most of the community is behind the project, especially the kids, even those up to age 18 who don’t usually join in the youth centre activities. “The kids’ support is everything,” says Alli.

It took Alli and a core group of kids two-and-a-half months to clear the brush, hack down trees with axes and pull roots out to make the snowboarding hills this past summer. All they needed next was some equipment.

Alli is nothing if not dedicated to the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation youth. His first experience was as a volunteer for a year at the centre, right after graduating from York University. He enjoyed it so much that when the position of recreation coordinator became available, Alli applied. “I feel like I’m their parent. I see them as all my kids,” he says.

With the hills cleared and ready for snow, Alli spent his vacation in Toronto this fall drumming up donations of snowboards, bindings, helmets and jackets from places like Transworld Snowboarding, an online magazine out of California, and Quicksilver Foundation. He wanted to make sure that any child who was interested in snowboarding would have the necessary equipment. And when he approached his alma mater, York’s Alumni Office and the York University Bookstore donated 25 sweatshirts along with signage.

Left: Shawn Alli (back centre) surrounded by youth from the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation Youth Centre wearing the York-donated sweatshirts

Alli believes having a university presence in the community will be a motivating force for the youth. “I want these kids to dream big…to know they can dream big, and then try to get the skills they need to make those dreams come true,” he says. He wants to be a role model for them as someone who has a university education and who doesn’t smoke or drink.

In addition to running regular activities like wrestling and drawing, this York philosophy graduate gives life classes on a variety of subjects, including bullying and healthy relationships. That’s where his degree comes in handy, Alli says. The next session he plans to do will discuss how the decisions people make affect others, as well as the course of events.

Right: One of the snowboarding hills nearing completion

“I want to teach them how to make their own choices and to make good choices,” says Alli. Snowboarding fits in with that. Choosing to snowboard is a good decision compared to stealing or doing drugs, he says. “Snowboarding is all about making better choices.”

There is strong potential in Pehdzeh Ki First Nation. “A lot of the aboriginal kids are artists. This community could be known for its painting, drawing and sculpture. There are so many avenues where growth could be had.”

The six hours of sleep a night, along with the running around trying to organize everything required for the youth to snowboard on the newly built hills, was well worth it, says Alli. “I can’t wait to see all of us on the hill.” Likewise, the kids are excited. For most of them, this will be the first time they’ve snowboarded. Brimming with infectious excitement and ambition, Alli and the youth have dubbed the hills the Pehdzeh Ki Snowboarding Resort.

For more information or to view pictures of the hills being cleared, visit the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation Youth Centre Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer