When The Student Becomes The Teacher

How one family exemplifies the Schweitzer-based North Idaho Mountain Sports Education Fund’s “earn your own way” ethos

By Barry Campbell

In 2010, long-time Schweitzer Mountain Resort ski instructor Jeff Rouleau first conceived the idea of an organization focused on getting local kids onto the slopes. So many families he knew had two working parents, but still couldn’t afford it. Fast forward 13 years, and hundreds of scholarship skiers and snowboarders have benefited immensely from the efforts of the North Idaho Mountain Sports Education Fund (NIMSEF) he created.

Rouleau might have envisioned families, vets and disabled skiers enjoying the Schweitzer experience via NIMSEF, but never could have imagined the extent to which one local family grew to symbolize the goals and values of the nonprofit.

The Steffen family’s NIMSEF tale begins with their moving to the Idaho Panhandle in 2009 and the parents, Jason and Kelsey, starting their own business. They didn’t have disposable income to send their eldest child, Malia, up to Schweitzer regularly, and neither parent skied or snowboarded.

Upon learning about NIMSEF, they applied, and Malia was awarded a NIMSEF scholarship. Within a couple years, she launched her own business to cover her portion of the NIMSEF scholarship. “My parents weren’t skiers, but I really wanted to ski,” says Malia (now 17 years old).

“I started making candles and bath confetti at home so I could pay off the $50 [the fee required by NIMSEF] and use any extra profit to help my brothers get to ski, too.” That company, Smalltown Kids, has continually grown, and its products are sold online and in Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint, Hood River and Portland stores.

Kids Earning Their Way

As the Smalltown Kids website reads: “It all started because we wanted to ski. We are three kids learning to earn our own way. We handcraft all of our products in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.” Malia was so motivated by the experience NIMSEF afforded her that she not only covered her siblings’ NIMSEF requirements, but she and her brothers built the business to the point where it has been a corporate sponsor of the program for the past three years.

Rouleau explains that from the beginning, NIMSEF was designed to not only teach skiing/snowboarding, but to engage its participants. “We wanted to allow them to work for a portion of their tuition and participate in fundraising, because we believe this will help them value this gift, build a work ethic, and learn to give back,” he says. All scholarship students receive a full Schweitzer season pass, rental gear for the season, and students aged 7-14 are enrolled in Schweitzer’s Funatics program, which connects groups of similar age and ability who spend eight weeks together exploring the mountain.

Photo courtesy NIMSEF

Coming Full Circle

In Malia’s case, NIMSEF may have spurred not only a work ethic, but a career. When she aged out of Funatics, she was accepted into the Schweitzer Junior Instructor program, and then quickly earned her Level I and Level II Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) certifications (and associated pay raises). Malia, as a Schweitzer ski school instructor, says that teaching Funatics lessons that include NIMSEF participants is extremely gratifying and surreal.

“It is just super cool to see that come full circle, to be able to give back what had been given to me originally,” she adds. Malia has also earned money toward a women’s snowcat skiing trip, has taken her Level I avalanche training (earning another scholarship), and will be working in the backcountry skiing industry with Selkirk Powder, a local snowcat operation this year. The Steffen kids worked hard at their business this summer, and Malia devoted some of her profits toward a summer ski/snowboard camp in Colorado.

“NIMSEF taught us that you don’t have to have a ton of money to be able to do these things. There are workarounds, and if you truly want it, you’ll work hard for it,” she says. “That’s awesome, and it’s why we are so happy to be able to sponsor other kids in the program.”

Photo Courtesy NIMSEF

The Ski Industry’s Next Generation

NIMSEF also helped nudge Malia’s younger brother Zadok down the trail of bigger things on the mountain. He started out in NIMSEF and moved on to participating in a Schweitzer youth leadership program. In 2023, at age 14, he not only entered – and won – his first snowboarding competition, at the resort’s Snowghost Banked Slalom race, but his finish time would have won the men’s division and placed him sixth in the open division.

Zadok also took first place in the resort’s Rowdy Grouse Rail Jam competition and has earned invitations to some bigger out-of-state competitions. He’s planning to enter some of those and is partially paying for the entry fees and travel with his Smalltown Kids business earnings.

Not surprisingly, Zadok and Malia’s father Jason has become a huge advocate for this nonprofit that he says changed the course of his family’s life. “The progression we’re witnessing in our children, on and off the snow, is amazing and NIMSEF really got it all started,” he says. Both parents, Jason and Kelsey, have also taken up skiing/boarding, and their three younger children also spend plenty of time at Schweitzer.

Jason says the structure of NIMSEF’s student participation is the key to its success since it provides a tool parents can use to motivate their children. “For us, NIMSEF was the inspiration for them to start the business, and it has shown them what it means to have a vision and figure out ways of achieving those goals,” he adds. “NIMSEF taught them to ski and snowboard. Now they’re becoming ski instructors and supporting their passions with their business. This story shines a bit of light on the core soul of Schweitzer.”

A Small, Nimble Team and Community Effort

With five board members, lots of help from Schweitzer, and private donations, this nonprofit continues to provide joy and hope to kids who can’t afford it, disabled people, and veterans. While he is not one to take much credit, Rouleau experiences tremendous pride in seeing the progress of the Steffen kids and so many other NIMSEF participants.

As the area’s demographics change and the financial pressures on local working families increase, the organization plans to continue building the ski and snowboard community. “The financial challenges of living here have only gotten more difficult in the last few years, and that’s not going to change,” Rouleau says. “Our goal is doing what we can to help the entire community be able to experience the amazing mountain that’s in our backyard.”

For more information about NIMSEF, visit Nimsef.com. //

Barry Campbell is an avid skier and semi-retired snowboarder who runs his own PR and marketing business to fund his outdoor adventures. He lives in Sandpoint with his wife, teenage son, and golden doodle and can often be found on Lake Pend Oreille, on Schweitzer’s steeps, or on Sandpoint-area singletrack.

Cover Photo courtesy of NIMSEF

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