PORTLAND — WinterKids, the nonprofit dedicated to getting kids, families and communities moving in the winter, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

What started as a program desgined to introduce kids to the sport of downhill skiing has now grown into one that offers discounts on all types of winter activities, from snowshoeing to cross-country skiing and snowboarding to sledding.

“We want kids to be active and healthy all year, but we focus on winter because it is our longest and most sedentary season,” said Rob Wilber, WinterKids marketing and communications manager.

The organization began in 1997 as part of the Ski Maine Association, but was incorporated as WinterKids in 2000 and now offers discount programs for nine differet winter activities at 50 recreational areas, Wilbur said.

Those include Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, Five Fields Farm in Bridgton, the Family Ice Center in Falmouth, Seacoast Adventure in Windham, and several skating rinks in Portland, as well as the state’s well-known ski mountains.

Season “passports” are available to students in fifth- through seventh-grade for $20, and fourth-graders are eligible for a FunPass, which provides free cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on specially groomed trails.

“WinterKids’ roots are as a learn-to-ski program, but we’ve grown to focus (more) on children’s overall health and education,” Wilbur said. “Childhood obesity is a serious problem. According to a 2012 University of Maine study, the annual costs of obesity in Maine are $453 million.”

Last year, WinterKids reached more than 23,000 kids in Maine and New Hampshire, he added.

“Over the years, children’s playtime has become more and more structured,” Wilbur said. “Children really need unstructured playtime to move, learn and explore.”

Bailey Sullivan, a former WinterKids intern, said “being a passport holder gave me access to a whole world of winter activities I didn’t know were possible. I owe my love of winter and all that comes with it to WinterKids. … I’ve been able to share my passion and hopefully foster a new generation of winter kids.”

WinterKids programs are divided into family programs, school programs and community events, Wilbur said.

“Our community events give people the opportunity to come out and sample what winter has to offer,” he said. “Our largest community event is Welcome to Winter, an annual winter festival that takes place in Payson Park in Portland.”

This season’s Welcome to Winter event, which will include sledding, snowshoeing, ice skating and more, will be held on Jan. 20, 2018.

Although the passport and community programs are popular, Wilbur said “our school programs are where we are growing the fastest. Our WinterKids Challenge trains teachers to get kids outside during classroom time with lessons that have a physical activity component.”

With school outreach, “We are able to reach large numbers of kids in the neediest, most rural corners of Maine,” he said. “Our school programs also engage kids by getting them outside and active.”

This winter the organization is launching a new event, called the WinterKids Winter Games. Under this program, one elementary school in each of Maine’s 16 counties will compete in a four-week physical activity and nutrition challenge during the month of January.

Wilbur said the funding to support WinterKids “comes from a combination of corporate support, grants and individual donors.”

The WinterKids Downhill 24 at Sugarloaf, which is held in early March, is the organization’s largest annual fundraiser. It features a 24-hour ski and snowboard challenge, where teams compete to see who can raise the most money and stay on the slopes for a full 24 hours.

“We are a small organization, (but we) cast a wide net,” Wilbur said. “We will get kids outside and active this winter in all 16 counties in Maine and another four counties in New Hampshire.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

During its annual Welcome to Winter event, which will be held in Portland’s Payson Park on Jan. 20, 2018, WinterKids introduces kids and families to the joys of winter sports.

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