PORTLAND – When Chomba Kaluba arrived from Zambia as a college student eight years ago, he had no idea what a Maine winter was like.

The former Southern Maine Community College student, who graduated from Bates College, had never seen snow.

“Just touching it and playing in it was fun,” said Kaluba, who now teaches sociology at SMCC.

So Kaluba said he was eager to help recently arrived immigrants discover the joys of sledding, skating and other winter sports at the WinterKids ninth annual Welcome to Winter Festival Saturday at Payson Park in Portland, where he served cocoa and other treats to the hundreds of people who turned out.

“I know how it feels,” said Kaluba.

The free event is designed to help families new to Maine winters learn how to stay warm and enjoy the outdoors.

The festival is just one of the activities offered by WinterKids, a 13-year-old organization that promotes outdoor winter activities for children.

Last winter 17,000 children and their families participated in WinterKids programs.

The organization has a staff of four and statewide teams of volunteers, and operates on a $343,000 annual budget.

Julie Mulkern, WinterKids executive director, said the festival is a community effort, with merchants donating free winter outdoor clothing, snacks and sleds.

Participants also had a chance to check out snowshoeing, learn the art of snowman building and huddle around a fire pit.

Controlled chaos ruled on the sledding hill at the park, where children hurtled down as their parents shouted encouragement in dozens of languages.

Ardo Sharif, a Somali native who moved to Maine five years ago, said she brought her two children, Asmail Dhalai, 10, and Sara Dhalai, 8, to the festival for the first time because she wanted them to find out about good places to sled in the city.

Sara said she likes to go as fast as she can down the hill.

“When you start you think it is scary, but you find out it isn’t,” said Sara.

Leona Oak, 7, of Westbrook, whose parents are native Cambodians, said she likes winter.

“Playing with snow and making snowmen are fun,” Leona said.

Among those seeking out the warmth of the fire pit was Ali Aljubyly, 19, an Iraqi native who moved to Maine four years ago.

Aljubyly said while his little brother was having a good time at the festival and enjoys winter, he is still learning to adapt to the snowstorms and single-digit temperatures.

“But I am not a big fan of winter,” Aljubyly said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]