We’ve all known someone that’s dropped out of school. Many of us, however, don’t know how to combat this trend. Arn Menconi, the founder and executive directer of the non-profit SOS Outreach International, believes that outdoor sports can be used to keep students in school. He believes that today’s biggest market for the outdoor industry is the most overlooked demographic: low-income and minority youth.
Arn realistically looks at what needs to change in the outdoor industry, while infusing the passion needed for this type of mission. Arn is able to use his experience at SOS to share how we can join in changing the outdoor industry. Straight forward and to the point, Arn sheds some wisdom on an increasingly important issue as America’s demographics are increasingly changing.
Arn: The mission of SOS is to improve the lives of at-risk youth by using value based leadership development, so that they can make better life choices and will live healthier lives.
Rebekah: In an article, it said that SOS Outreach receives more than 1 million in donations so that it can serve 3,200 undeserved youth. Are many of the youth minorities? Is this a goal SOS has?
Arn: We target underserved and disadvantaged youth, not minorities. Still, a majority of our children come from minority backgrounds.
Rebekah: What impact does getting involved in winter sports have on disadvantaged youth?
Arn: I don’t think it’s winter sports versus other sports. I think it’s having a long term relationship and using the outdoor sports as an incentive to keep kids involved. Adults work because they are somewhat motivated by being paid. Youth are interested in learning and also play. So the carrot for youth is outdoor sports. Also, outdoor sports are extraordinary experiential learning tools that allow kids to overcome fears, build self-esteem, work with others and develop creative thinking; all of the tools that are necessary to be successful in life.
Rebekah: What does SOS do to make the outdoors something that increases leadership skills?
Arn: What SOS really strives to do is have a long term relationship with the students. In a lot of youth programs, it’s very challenging for a youth organizations to have a long term relationship. The success that we see in SOS is that we have over 500 kids that are going to be in year round programs and have been in our programs for three or four years. And we’re getting close to a 100 kids that have had six to ten years of contact with SOS.
That’s all that it boils down to. It’s not about educational or mental or physical health, it’s about committing to have a long term relationship with the student and is your relationship going beyond the curriculum. There’s kids who have been in sports for a year, but haven’t had the experiences that make them a leader.
It’s like scissors; which blade cuts the paper? Both blades. Same with the outdoors, it has to be mixed with leadership development. If you just focus on leadership, it’s not going to be fun, it’s not going to teach them to learn how to think. We’re working on a program where we increase the frequency of outdoor leadership, service learning, and the development of the person.
Arn: A change is needed in the outdoor sports industry. Why stop with snowboarding? All of these sports are dominated by white upper class people. I don’t want to say it’s a right or wrong thing, but out of all the U.S.’s youth 18 years old and under, 47% are minorities. If these sports only target the white upper class, they’re leaving out over half of our youth today.
Your question is one of the most important questions.
Individual outdoor sports, such as camping and climbing, have grown because of baby boomers. When I was a kid, 20% of kids were minority. Now it’s almost 50%. We were brought into the sport through our parents or a club. Today, we need someone else to introduce that nearly 50% minority group to outdoor sports.
Rebekah: How is SOS trying to change the demographics of outdoor sports?
Arn: Non-profits can reach out to kids of all color, disadvantaged kids whose lives could be helped by the excitement and joy of these sports. We would change the model of how we would do business. Just like Amazon has changed the way people buy books to make it more accessible, and Kayak.com has changed the way people have shopped for airline tickets, we’re changing the way people are introduced into the outdoors. Right now, the media is just marketing to themselves. There’s opportunity to market through a non -profit and get money from a new demographic.
What I was trying to say to people, is all businesses have to consistently be creative and innovative to succeed and you have to look at what’s happening in our business. We are not bringing in the next generation of youth. And one way of doing it is by having the courage to believe that by helping under priveledged kids we can change people’s lives.
Rebekah: Why is it important for us to engage all demographics of the next generation?
Arn: We have to say, ‘Do we really care about people in the outdoors? Do we care about kids who are not able to pick their parents, when their parents are not teaching them the importance of education and leadership?’. There’s millions of those kids in North America, and non-profits can reach them.
We’ve all known kids who have dropped out of high school and that has lead to nothing good. The number one determinant of bad grades and attendance happens in elementary. If we could take those kids and get them hooked on outdoor sports, that gives them a passion and engagement.
Not only will it get customers from a new demographic but it will also have an impact on children. We got into sports because we wanted to have fun. Now that were adults we need to know how to take our toys and give them to kids, and in a way that makes money and makes a difference in kids’ lives.
The outdoor industry doesn’t believe that. They think that a charity model will not bring in money, because that demographic can’t afford to be consumers. That’s false. I’ve worked with kids for 18 years that come from no money and no hope, that become life long outdoor enthusiasts. But most importantly they become life long leaders.
Rebekah: Do you encourage others to get involved in engaging youth with the outdoors?
Arn: There’s some who want to change the model of how things are being done. The reason is because as we are getting older, we don’t just wanna get more kids up the chair-lift; we believe in a purpose-driven life. We can not let complacency keep us from helping others.
You’ve got to put your mission first to live your life. If you give up whats in your heart, nobody will believe in you. It doesn’t mean you’re giving your talents away, you’re leveraging your strengths.
I want to make sure this isn’t coming across as just some idealistic message. I have an MBA, and I’ve run 200 million dollar organizations. There’s a way that we can do this.