HDR Foundation Grant: Nordic Journeys

HDR Foundation helps Native Alaskans find glee while learning to ski

A professional skier, a group of children and a school teacher walk onto a frozen lagoon.

No, that isn't the start of a knee-slapping joke, but it is the beginning of something that will draw plenty of smiles.

The HDR Foundation's latest grant will provide ski equipment for two schools in the Native Alaskan towns of Elim and Pilot Station through Nordic Journeys, a nonprofit organization that teaches schoolchildren the basics of cross-country skiing with its Skiku program.

The $15,000 grant will be used to purchase the skis, boots, bindings and poles. Skiku instructors made up of former Olympians, elite high school coaches, and former collegiate and professional skiers take the gear and spend a week at each school, teaching the children about skiing through the school's physical education classes and an afterschool program. The ski equipment is then left with the school so the children can use it year-round.

The Professional Skier

Andrew Dougherty, an environmental scientist in HDR's Anchorage office, was the employee sponsor for the HDR Foundation grant, meaning he is an active volunteer with Nordic Journeys and recommended the organization for a grant. Growing up in Alaska, Andrew fell in love with skiing. He earned a scholarship to join the University of Denver's ski team and graduated in 2013. His journey then took him to Vermont, where he competed as a professional cross-country skier until last spring. He has since returned to Alaska, working for HDR and doing what he can to help others learn about the joys of cross-country skiing.

"I was racing, training and meeting people all over the world," he said. "I want to share that joy with the people in our own state."

So, Dougherty packed his bags, grabbed his skis and headed to the northern Alaskan village of Nuiqsut with a group of instructors. The 400 residents of Nuiqsut are made up of mostly Native Alaskans who live just a couple miles from the Arctic Ocean. It was the first year Skiku had visited the village, and many of the children had never seen skis despite living an area that's almost always covered in snow.

"It's a very, very different world," Dougherty said.

One year later, Dougherty was the trip lead in the village of Noatak, which was in its fourth year with the Skiku program. He said the impact of the program returning to the same villages was eye-opening. The students had been eagerly awaiting the visit and knew what to expect.

"The students were excited about us coming," Dougherty said. "They knew what we were there for. I was amazed by their ability to ski and we didn't have to waste much time putting on the skis — they knew how to do that. They even had ideas for games and different areas to explore from years past."

Dougherty has built a personal connection with the people of these Native Alaskan villages. That's given him a unique perspective as he's done work for HDR.

He recalled his time in Nuiqsut, which sits along the banks of the Colville River. While helping at the school, Dougherty said he could see the industry work that was going on in the area. Last summer, Dougherty was a part of that work. 

"We were doing some wetlands field work near Colville River, just a few miles away from Nuiqsut" he said. "Being one of the people helping with the exploration and environmental science, you see the native villages in a different way when you do your work. I think it's important for people in this industry to have a personal connection with these villages."

The Group of Children

The native villages are known for having several problems, including alcoholism and depression. It's become a clash of two cultures: A Western culture that is building schools with a required curriculum and their traditional culture that promotes hunting, fishing and in-home learning. The result of this clash is a very low graduation rate.

"The schools have a very hard time with attendance," Dougherty said. "Many parents and students don't feel like they belong in this world that is being brought to them."

The Skiku program is there to help.

"They have such a great time skiing with us that they have an incentive to come to school for that week," Dougherty said. "We are part of their gym class. Every class rotates coming out and we have an after school program that they can also come to."

Skiku makes its biggest impact at the elementary-school level. Once you get past that, Dougherty said, attendance drops. Instructors and teachers want to use skiing to inspire the children early so that they keep coming back.

On top of that, the kids are finding a new way to get outside be active. Plus, they get to hang out with some of the best skiers in the world.

"Many of us are national champions and Olympians, but I don't think that's the reason they are so inspired," Dougherty said. "I think they see us as friendly new faces teaching them something fun."

This program is also giving the volunteers a chance to build trust with the local community.

"While I was in Noatak, the coaches were invited to one of the elder's houses and they gave us some traditional food, like black seal and muktuk, which is whale," Dougherty said. "That was a really cool experience."

The School Teacher

These villages are not used to hosting tourists or visitors. So when Skiku volunteers are in town, they stay in the school. In Dougherty's case, the schools set up cots in the library.

"We work with the principles and teachers," Dougherty said. "They are always so excited to have us there."

Those teachers and principles are usually non-natives who are trying to make an impact in these Alaskan villages, Dougherty said. Their main focus is to keep students coming back.

"We hope to have enough gear to leave behind several pairs of skis, boots and poles so they can continue skiing when we are not there," Dougherty said. "That's what this grant is funding. The equipment is held onto by the school and teachers can use it as an incentive. We are at the point right now where most the students' points are for attendance."

In some cases, learning to cross-country ski could save a person's life. Without roads, the main method of transportation in these Alaskan villages is snowmobile. People often have to travel 45 miles to reach the next town. So, if a snowmobile breaks down during that journey, there are not many options. By skiing over walking, it will save valuable time in a life-or-death situation. That's on top of the added health benefits that an active lifestyle brings, like a lower heart rate and lower risk of obesity.

So far, Nordic Journeys has helped 4,500 students learn to ski across 42 villages in the Calista, Bering Strait, NANA, Arctic Slope, and Doyon regions of Alaska. The 130 volunteers have already spent more than 5,200 hours on skis.

As the volunteers of Nordic Journeys return to the schools year after year, the students' skill will continue to improve. Which means Dougherty will have the chance to see the same smiling faces each year as they step onto the frozen tundra, strap on their skis provided by the HDR Foundation and play exciting games that will keep them coming back for more.

About HDR

HDR has partnered with clients to shape communities and push the boundaries of what's possible since 1917. We specialize in engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services. With nearly 10,000 employees in more than 225 locations around the world, we think global and act local.

About the HDR Foundation

The HDR Foundation was founded in 2012 and has provided more than half a million dollars in grants to local organizations — fueled by donations from HDR employees. We provide grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, federally recognized tribal governments, and to political subdivisions. Our giving is targeted to the communities in which our employees live and work, and to organizations where HDR employees are highly active. Grant recipients are also required to align with HDR's areas of focus, which include education, healthy communities and bettering the environment.