The gist of the story goes something like this: When Alexandra Parache was 15 she learned to snowboard and the experience changed her life. But before her first time in the snowy Catskills, the young Brooklynite didn't even know what snowboarding was.
She quickly figured it out by snowboarding with Stoked, the New York-based nonprofit youth development program that brought her to those mountains. The experience helped Parache learn to embrace the unknown, push through her fears and see possibilities for herself that she'd previously never imagined.
"It opened my eyes up to the fact that I can do anything I put my mind to regardless of how difficult or how far-fetched it seems at the moment," said Parache nearly seven years after her first time riding and just a few weeks shy of her college graduation. She is the first in her family to complete a university degree.
Needing a mentor
When she was a freshman in high school, Parache didn't plan on going to college. "My big dream was to be a bartender," Parache said. "I thought that high school was it. I think that having a mentor, being a part of Stoked and doing all these programs and being a part of these bigger things, it showed me that I can do more."
Parache's experience is not unusual, according to several alumni of the program. Since 2005, the organization has served more than 3,000 low-income, inner-city youth in New York and Los Angeles, using action sports to close the opportunity gap that often prevents them from succeeding in high school, college and careers after that. This year, a combined 150 students participated in the two cities.
The day that changed it all for Parache was an average Wednesday. The program's founder Steve Larosiliere came to her school and explained what his nonprofit was all about: an opportunity to snowboard, surf and skateboard with one-on-one mentors. Parache, now 22, was intrigued.
The sports were not something she could have done on her own -- she didn't have the money or the access. Nor did she have the right partner. The staff took care of that, pairing Parache with mentor Monique Judy, and the two hit it off immediately.
"She was a pretty amazing kid from the minute I met her," said Judy, a neurocritical care nurse who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "I joked that she really didn't need me because she was already this intelligent, generous, kind soul who probably would have found her way anyway."
Parache sees it differently.
"Having someone who I was really close with, who not only finished college but had a master's degree, had a good job, it was like something to look up to and see that, 'Oh I can do that, too,'" Parache said. "Having Monique there all the time was a big eye-opener for me."
As was snowboarding. Although it was among the hardest things she's ever done, with Judy at her side, Parache struggled through every bruising crash, and she grew to love a sport that brought her far outside her comfort zone.
Part of the program
For Parache, the experience opened her up to adventure and she has hardly looked back. In high school she spent a summer volunteering in Ghana, in West Africa. For college she left her family in the city to attend the University of Rochester. Since graduating, she moved to Columbus to be near Judy -- the two remain extremely close.
Since Parache's days in the program, Larosiliere said they realized that students needed more than one-on-one mentoring. The setup is now a four-year program focusing on developing character. Throughout the four years, students do action sports and community service, build skateboards, design brands for their boards, learn effective communication skills and complete internships.
"Now we're working with less kids, but we are working with them more. We're going deeper," Larosiliere said. "Our intention really isn't to grow the action sports industry. Our intention is really to use the best parts of action sports in order to transform kids' lives so that they can succeed in the future. We are very passionate about action sports as a means to close the opportunity gap."
One of the ways Larosiliere and his team aim to do that is by simply giving their students as many opportunities as they can. In 2012 that included a chance for 10 people in the program to make a Mountain Dew commercial featuring Lil' Wayne.
Destiny Modeste, 17, was one of the lucky 10. The would-be geneticist, who is on her way from New York to Dallas for college this fall, still raves about the unusual opportunity to meet industry professionals and flex her creative muscles. After initially joining the program just to make a skateboard for her little brother, Modeste said that the opportunities, "completely changed my entire life."
Even alumni who didn't get to hobnob with celebrities said they've also benefited from joining the program.
Mark Mendez, 18, has one more semester of high school in Manhattan. After graduation he wants to join the National Guard and pursue college while he serves. He sees joining the military as a way to give back, something he learned to appreciate through the organization's community service projects.
Mendez, now an excellent snowboarder and skateboarder, credits the program with transforming his attitude.
"With Stoked, one word you can't say is can't. It was always, 'I can and I will,'" he said. "And that's what kind of pushed me toward being more positive with everything else in life."
Judy said what is key about the experience for youth like her mentee Parache is the chance to see, and rise to, the potential in themselves that others know is there.
"All of the things that she worked toward achieving, I feel like she was perfectly capable of achieving without intervention," she said of Parache. Sometimes, she added, it's just about seeing new possibilities for oneself. "I think that's what Stoked offers to kids. Being able to get outside of the environment you are in all of the time and see yourself in a different light."