This season the popular WinterKids Passport Program turns 20.

WinterKids has the mission of “help(ing) children develop healthy lifelong habits through fun, outdoor winter activity.” On Tuesday, WinterKids was chosen as beneficiary of the 2018 TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race. The nonprofit will receive a $30,000 donation from the TD Charitable Foundation and can raise more through the race’s charity bib program.

WinterKids began in 1997 as a singular learn-to-ski program for fifth-graders sponsored by the statewide trade organization Ski Maine. A few years later, it spun into an independent nonprofit, offering school- and home-based outdoor education and programs to over 20,000 kids in Maine every year. The Passport Program also expanded over the years, adding sixth and seventh grade, and expanded from just downhill skiing to include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and dog sledding.

Six years ago, WinterKids added a “FunPass” as a lead-in program to the Passport; a free, downloadable pass for kids in preschool-fourth grade to try snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. So in that way, the Passport Program is available to kids from preschool up to seventh grade.

“The Passport began in 1997 with an emphasis on skiing, but it’s grown into so much more. Skiing remains a major draw, but other activities have grown immensely in popularity,” says WinterKids Executive Director Julie Mulkern in a press release. “In 20 years, approximately 75,000 Maine kids have used the Passport to get outside and active in the winter.”

This year the Passport made the major step of adding four partners in New Hampshire: Attitash Mountain, Wildcat Mountain, High Meadow Farms and Labrie Family Skating at Puddle Dock Pond. The new partners offer a mix of downhill skiing, ice skating, and horseback rides.

The Passport Program is pretty straightforward, offering free and discounted access to outdoor activities in Maine for kids grade five through seven. For most skating rinks and downhill and Nordic areas, the passport nets a free youth ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket. Additionally, “Family Days” – there’s a calendar on the WinterKids website – at partner resorts offer further discounts.

In honor of the 20th anniversary, all WinterKids Passports are available for $20 this year. Also in celebration of the anniversary, a social media campaign around the #tbt (Throwback Thursday) hashtag has encouraged WinterKids alumni to post about taking part in the program over the past two decades.

WinterKids is also planning to launch a native mobile app this year, replacing the Passport booklet and serve to expand the program’s depth and reach. Via email, Mulkern noted that the app will “engage (families) in a wider array of outdoor winter activities, more often, with organizations and winter sports partners who make up a rich history and heritage in the Maine outdoors.”

The program is one that I watched with no small measure of jealousy as an adolescent skier. When the passport started for fifth-graders in 1997, I was making weekend day trips as a sixth-grader. As the program expanded, I perennially remained just a little too old to partake. I was lucky enough to have a father who spent years in (and still had connections to) the ski industry, so even in Maine’s middle class we were able to string together lots of weekend ski trips. But I was, and remain, super aware that ski equipment and lift tickets are not affordable for lots of Maine families, even with used equipment and at smaller resorts.

WinterKids is important not only as an entry point for families into healthy outdoor recreation – it’s also a way to ensure there are future generations who are interested in and invested in the sport. With 25 percent of Passport holders new to winter sports, the program is truly bringing new people to the Maine outdoors.

While the Passport Program could be considered WinterKids’ marquee program, it’s far from the only work they do. Their school programs (under the umbrella of their “Guide to Outdoor Active Learning,” or GOAL) integrate outdoor activity and learning into lesson plans for Maine preschools and elementary schools, and the annual “WinterKids Challenge” incentivizes classrooms to tackle these plans. The annual Welcome to Winter Festival, run in cooperation with Portland Parks, Recreation & Facilities, brings hundreds of Mainers to Payson Park for sledding, snowshoeing and ice skating.

Their biggest event and fundraiser is the Downhill 24, a 24-hour skiathon at Sugarloaf, which will occur on March 2 and 3. Teams of skiers (or individuals) raise pledges for participating, which go to benefit WinterKids.

On the hill, teams compete to get the fastest lap times and most runs on a trail over 24 hours, sharing a bib with a timing chip among members. At least that’s how things operated in the past. This year everyone participating gets a chip, and time on the mountain counts for 30 percent of each team’s points, along with fundraising, lap times and other on-hill activities.

Participating in the Downhill 24 last year was one of the highlights of my skiing career, and I look forward to raising money again this March.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Jake, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Josh can be reached at:

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