PORTLAND – As Justice Smart flopped onto a saucer-shaped sled and flew down Payson Hill on Saturday, it was hard to tell whose smile was bigger – hers or those of her parents.

Participating in the seventh annual Welcome to Winter Festival hosted by WinterKids in Payson Park, the 8-year-old went sledding for the first time.

Smart convinced her parents, Alice Okot and David Ojiem, to attend the event. She woke up early Saturday, Okot said, ready to go four hours before the festival started at 12:30 p.m.

Ojiem said he had been in Maine since 1999, but had never tried winter sports. But while he was resistant to try sledding himself, Okot joined in the fun.

“It’s fun, I like playing in the snow,” Smart said, not wasting any time before climbing back up the hill for another run.

The free festival, designed to introduce immigrant and refugee families to activities they can enjoy when snow blankets the city, drew about 300 people to Payson Hill.

“It’s an opportunity to show families how fun (snow) can be and do it in a comfortable and safe way,” said Anna Fincke, vice president of the WinterKids board of directors.

Said WinterKids Development Director Julie Mulkern: “Many (immigrant families) don’t go outside during the winter.”

Mulkern said she hopes this introduction will encourage families to find other locations in the city to enjoy the snow, making winter a little more fun and bearable.

L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery School also had pairs of snowshoes available for families to try, but sledding seemed to attract the most attention.

Aisha Issa settled into a snow tube at the top of the hill, starting down with a small push from her family. As the tube spun around, picking up speed, the 17-year-old closed her eyes and shrieked.

This is Issa’s second winter in Maine, having moved here from Iraq with her family. Since coming here, she has learned to like the snow.

“It’s cool,” she said, watching her sister Fatima Issa, 15, take a turn on the snow tube. “It’s a little cold, but the snow is cool.”

On a typical Saturday during the winter, Payson Hill is often busy with neighborhood children sledding or playing on the new snow park. But Fincke said it is unusual to see as much diversity as the WinterKids event attracted. “It’s such a great crowd today,” she said.

In addition to showing families fun winter activities, WinterKids volunteers handed out 100 bags filled with donated warm weather items, such as gloves, hats and socks.

“The point of that is we want these people to be introduced to winter, but to be safe and appropriately dressed,” Mulkern said.

Fincke said one participant has been enjoying the “whiteness” of the snow, but said the “chilliness is a little iffy.” Providing these families with warm weather clothes will help them dress accordingly, especially with more cold weather and another snowstorm in the forecast.

The gift bags also included Slope Sliders donated by L.L. Bean so that children who fell in love with sledding could continue enjoying it throughout the winter.

Fincke showed Okot and Ojiem how Smart could use the small, round plastic sled with a handle, but also offered ideas on where they could purchase larger sleds for their daughter.

Watching Smart fly down the mountain again, Fincke said to Okot and Ojiem, “I think your daughter will make you come back and sled again.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]