Why a Park City nonprofit that connects kids to sports like luge is looking for votes

The Land Rover the Youth Sports Alliance could win would slash transportation costs, allow for more scholarships, according to the organization’s executive director.

Sure, Ashley Farquharson could have picked a different after-school activity when she was in sixth grade. But who doesn’t like sledding? And how many kids get to sled down an Olympic luge track?

Not many, unless they live in Park City. There the nonprofit Youth Sports Alliance introduces more than 2,400 kids of all income levels and abilities each year to sports that vary from mountain biking to snowboarding, ski jumping to luge, bobsled to speed skating. Some of those kids, like Farquharson, go on to thrive in their sports. She qualified to compete for the United States in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Other participants just spend a little less time on their phones or in front of the TV. Though it may seem like a lesser accomplishment, that’s everything YSA is about, according to executive director Emily Fisher.

“It’s really just about getting 2,400 kids off their screens and active,” she said, “and trying new things.”

As a result, YSA usually emphasizes health over competition — but not over the past month. The organization is one of five nonprofits nominated to receive the Land Rover Defender Service Award in Outdoor Accessibility and Education. The winner, determined by a vote, receives $25,000 and a Land Rover Defender 130, which retails for a minimum of $68,000.

So, Fisher has been calling upon Farquharson and anyone else the program has influenced since it was established after the 2002 Olympics to encourage use of facilities built when Utah hosted the Winter Games. She’s been asking them to vote and spread the word. Voting continues through Wednesday at www.ysausa.org/vote.

“Even if we don’t win,” Fisher said, “just to have all of the athletes who’ve gone through our programs sharing our information and just to have that outreach and have everybody sort of get to know us a little bit better and have people going onto that website and watching our video and seeing what we’re all about has definitely been great.”

The competition has caught the eye of locally based Olympic luminaries such as moguls multi-medalists Hannah Kearney and Shannon Bahrke, Nordic combined gold medalist Billy Demong and Nikki Stone, the first American to win a gold medal as an inverted aerial skier.

YSA produced its first three Olympians in Beijing: Nordic combined skier Jared Shumate, speed skater Casey Dawson and Farquharson. Two of them, Fisher said, were scholarship athletes. The organization provides the after-school program for a small commitment fee to any child who qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Anyone whose family makes 80% of the median income for the area pays half price. Fisher said about one in five students enrolled in the program are on scholarship.

In addition to offering the scholarships and transportation for the students, who attend either elementary or middle school, YSA takes inclusion one step further.

“We have gear-up nights before the programs start. So when the kids show up for the programs, nobody can tell who’s a scholarship kid and who’s not a scholarship kid,” Fisher said, noting the organization provides all gear, from coats to skis. “And we run programs for all kids, so we don’t run programs just for girls or just for minorities or just for scholarship kids or anything like that. We put them all on a bus together.”

Farquharson fondly recalled those bus rides in a 2022 article in Self magazine.

“Every Friday,” she said, “they would pick us up in a van, drive us up, and slap us in some elbow pads and a helmet and send us down [the track].”

The transportation aspect has actually become one of YSA’s biggest obstacles. So as much as the organization could use the money, Fisher really hopes it wins so it can get the SUV. The Defender 130 seats eight and can pull a trailer, which would allow YSA to cut back on car and bus rentals to take kids to their activities. The money saved, she said, would be put toward more scholarships.

YSA currently serves students in Summit and Wasatch counties, but Fisher would like to see it expanded. After all, it seems there’s hardly a kid in Utah who doesn’t like sledding, and one of them might be the next Ashley Farquharson.

“We feel like we really do have a sort of plug and play model, " Fisher said, “that hopefully we can get into lots of different and more places.”