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Stoked On Gratitude    

Stoked On Gratitude

Artwork by Fisk.

By Hans Aschim

Sometimes feeling inspired requires intention. 

Steve Larosiliere, the founder of the mentoring organization Stoked, can pinpoint the exact moment when he had the idea to start an organization that channeled the culture and experience of action sports like surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding into youth mentoring.

Like many New York City stories, this one starts on the subway. Following 9/11, NYC-native Larosiliere was experiencing a lot of anxiety and depression and was looking for something positive to direct his energy toward. While he rode the train, a stranger sold him a book on mentoring, and it changed Larosiliere’s life forever. He immediately started mentoring a boy in foster care. Every week he’d go to a group home, and they’d sit at a table to talk. Sometimes they would walk to Chinatown for food or play boardgames. Without much to do, building a connection was slow. And Larosiliere doesn’t hesitate to say it was boring, for both mentor and mentee. But, it was still the best part of his week. “I didn’t think of myself,” he says. “I put everything into that relationship.”

In the midst of a breakup in his personal life, Larosiliere needed to get out of town for some perspective. He did what any respectable avid snowboarder would do and went in search of snow. He took a self-described inspiration trip to Whistler, BC. Looking down an open field of chopped up powder with the sun starting to set on the last day of his trip, on his very last run, inspiration hit. 

“I thought, wouldn’t it be great if my mentee was with me?” he remembers. The idea for Stoked instantly started taking shape: a youth-mentoring organization that used action sports like snowboarding as a tool for building relationships. “I wanted a stronger relationship with the kid I was mentoring. You don’t grow by doing the same thing and not changing your environment.” 

Now over 15 years later, Stoked has transformed the lives of roughly 10,000 people (mentors and mentees) and has chapters in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Having faced challenges with mental health in the past, Larosiliere, who is also the author of the book Life Purpose Secrets, learned that one of the most effective coping tools is helping others. “You’re in your own head and thinking of yourself and about yourself,” he says. “The best way to overcome any challenge is to flip it around. You need to go outward. You need to be in service of others.” 

He credits his own mentors with Stoked’s success. Without his relationships, Larosiliere might not have even started the activity that led him to Stoked: snowboarding.

“I grew up skateboarding in New York and snowboarding was always something I wanted to do, but my parents could never afford it,” he says. “Snowsports for Haitian immigrant kids is not a thing.” 

When he grew up, Larosiliere ran into an old friend and fellow Haitain-American, Ouigi Theodore, owner of The Brooklyn Circus menswear brand. “I asked him what he was doing one weekend, and he said he was going snowboarding.” Now an adult and with the means to buy his own gear, Larosiliere went to the nearest store and got kitted out head to toe and went to Hunter Mountain the next day. He spent most of the day falling, but soon it clicked, and he was hooked. Fast forward three years later and Stoked was born. 

“I had my own mentors at the time,” says Larosiliere. He remembers Lou, a non-profit manager who helped set up organizations and run churches across New York City. “I remember before I even met him, he said, ‘I can help you start this non-profit. You just have to do exactly what I say. And I believe in you.” That was the encouragement Larosiliere needed to get started. Every week they would talk on the phone. Lou would give advice, and Larosiliere would get to work. 

Another mentor helped Larosiliere define the vision for Stoked. The program would emphasize life mentoring and personal development. Each sport would be tied to a different set of life skills. Snowboarding would help with goal-setting. Skateboarding was about overcoming obstacles and community. Surfing would instill trust and values around respecting yourself, others and the environment.

As Stoked started to take form, Larosiliere continued to grow and lean on his community for help. One friend threw parties to raise funds. Another started recruiting kids and mentors. Many would-be mentors were eager to share their life experiences and passion for the activities they loved with young people. “Mentors might know how to snowboard already, but by sharing it with someone who doesn’t have that knowledge, there’s an opportunity to really learn and grow together,” says Larosiliere.

Many mentors spend several years volunteering with Stoked after they get a feel for the organization. By Larosiliere’s count, there are nine children born out of Stoked mentors meeting one another. One couple that met on a bus ride to the mountain just celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary. The common thread among mentors is a gratitude for the ability to take something they love and inspire that same feeling in someone else. 

“I’ll never forget being on the magic carpet with a student who was staring backward over her shoulder, toward the valley,” says Matthew, a mentor who has volunteered with Stoked in New York City for eight years. “When she turned around, she said ‘Wow. I never get to see this.’ It made me realize taking the time to go somewhere outside of the city has value in and of itself.” 

Throughout high school Nnandi was part of Stoked as a mentee. “What originally drew me to participating with Stoked was a chance to skateboard after school, but what kept me was all the friends I made and all the people I met with similar interests to me,” says Nnandi. In addition to learning to swim, surf and snowboard, they got to work on a national advertising campaign with Lil Wayne. (Stoked partners with businesses like Vice and Brooklyn-based digital agency Huge to provide mentees with valuable work experience.) 

For mentees and mentors alike, it’s the relationships that stand out the most. “What I loved most about my time in Stoked was always feeling like I had a community behind me ready to help at any point in time,” says Nnandi, “constantly pushing me to break the boundaries I placed on myself and encouraging me to always be my true self.” Nnandi is now applying to teach English in Japan after graduating from their top college choice. 

While the coronavirus pandemic is making gathering and in-person mentoring impossible, Larosiliere and the Stoked crew aren’t giving up on their efforts. He’s still focused on connecting as many mentors and mentees as possible in this challenging time. “A disruption in the world allows you to focus on things you can control,” says Larosiliere. “Your mindset. Your circle. Your environment — and the impact you want to have. People are hurting all over the world. There’s no better time to help people than right now.” 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.