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How Julie Mulkern helps Maine kids get outside in winter.

Maine can’t export winter to more temperate climates, but Julie Mulkern is working on exporting the WinterKids brand everywhere there’s winter. Mulkern is the executive director of the nonprofit, which focuses on increasing outdoor physical activity in children from preschool through high school during what is typically a sedentary season for many.

In the nine years that Mulkern has led WinterKids, its reach has grown from 300 kids annually in Maine to 12,000 kids in Maine and New Hampshire. Now there are hopes to expand it via the year-old WinterKids App, which was built with the capacity to be licensed for use in other states. Mulkern says there’s already interest from Colorado, Oregon and Utah.

“The vision should be that all kids are outside and active in the winter, not just Maine kids,” she says.

Julie Mulkern and her son, Johnny, at Shaw Cherry Hill Farm in Westbrook. Photo by Heidi Kirn

The WinterKids vision started with founder Carla Marcus of Scarborough, a lifelong skier who worked with Ski Maine in 1997 to start a youth program that would feed the ski resort pipeline. Dubbed the Passport Program, it started as a way to reach fifth-graders through free ski lessons and then soon began to expand, including sixth and seventh grades in the free and discounted tickets program. The Passport program also grew to include other winter sports, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Marcus retired in 2007, shortly before Mulkern joined the WinterKids staff as its development director, but the founder calls herself a tremendous fan of Mulkern’s.

“She understands what WinterKids is all about,” Marcus says. “And she is accelerating it far beyond what I was able to do.”

Marcus says she knew from the early days of the program that it was ripe for expansion beyond downhill skiing. “Immediately, I started getting feedback from teachers and parents that it wasn’t just about alpine skiing but about health and developing lifelong habits of being active outside in winter,” Marcus says. “And study after study shows that children learn more effectively through experiential education.”

The WinterKids team with mascot Blaze at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Winter Games at Oxford-Cumberland Canal School in Westbrook. Photo courtesy of Julie Mulkern

Mulkern agrees. “I think WinterKids could have potentially gone in a different direction, but I was always very focused on public health and all kids,” she says. “It has never been more apparent to me since becoming a mom—I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old, boys—that kids’ default setting is to be outdoors and active. At WinterKids, we feel like it’s our job to nurture that. It’s a responsibility.”

With WinterKids’ alpine beginnings, people are often surprised that Mulkern isn’t a skier (she took lessons as a kid growing up in the small town of Burlington in Penobscot County, but it wasn’t something that stuck). Even so, she loves being out in the snow. With her own boys, Mulkern, 42, builds snow forts in her yard in Gorham, snowshoes Presumpscot Land Trust Trails and sleds Payson Hill. She tries to give them a childhood like her own, with an abiding love of Maine and of winter.

“Humans were not meant to hibernate,” she says. “We’re not suggesting that people be out all day long. Go for 10 minutes three times a day—anything. Shovel. Build a snowman. Make your own sledding hill. Winter is meant to be experienced, not endured.”

“Our app has 80-plus partners, and that isn’t just skiing and snowboarding, it’s tubing, ice skating, curling, anything you can imagine. They are offering free and reduced tickets to Maine and New Hampshire families.”

Mulkern has 20 years of nonprofit experience, including as the manager of development and volunteer resources for Spring Harbor Hospital, as a transportation network coordinator for the American Cancer Society and managing the mentor program at the Community Counseling Center. She moved into the executive director position at WinterKids in 2011.

“From the very beginning, everything I’ve done has included some element of resource development and fundraising,” Mulkern says. “What that is to me, and what I’m best at, is building relationships. You have to be able to speak to a homeless person, or the president of the organization, and everyone in between. Raising money has nothing to do with asking for money; it’s about relationships.”

Every single day at WinterKids feels different, Mulkern says. “You’re meeting with a corporation. You’re meeting with a volunteer group. You’re writing a grant.”

Mulkern and Program Committee Chair, Sarah Long, kick off another WinterKids event. Photo courtesy of Mulkern

Or, asking, as Mulkern did, is there an app for that, something that might be more efficient and useful than the original Passport?

The WinterKids App, which offers discounts and deals on admission, rentals, classes and gear at recreational areas and retailers in both Maine and New Hampshire, came online last winter. Deals get added throughout the season, which the static Passport program, which had to be printed, did not have capacity for.

“Our app has 80-plus partners, and that isn’t just skiing and snowboarding, it’s tubing, ice skating, curling, anything you can imagine,” Mulkern says. “They are offering free and reduced tickets to Maine and New Hampshire families.” Families pay $35 to register up to five family members for kids 18 and under.

“That fee helps to fund a lot of the stuff we’re doing with kids in rural areas who are not likely to ever be at Sugarloaf or Sunday River but certainly can be encouraged and educated to be outdoors and active in their own back yard and in their community,” Mulkern says.

Mulkern and her son Johnny enjoy the snow at Shaw Cherry Hill Farm in Westbrook. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Another innovation she brought to WinterKids is the Downhill 24, a 24-hour ski and snowboard challenge with teams of 12—some teams more on the competitive side, some more interested in the rare opportunity to ski Sugarloaf at night, on slopes illuminated with equipment borrowed from construction companies. The eighth annual Downhill 24, slated for next month (March 6–7), is anticipated to exceed the 2019 fundraising total of $384,000.

“Income from this event has changed the course of our organization and what we’re able to do,” Mulkern says. “When I started as executive director, our budget was under $250,000 a year, and now our signature fundraiser, the Downhill 24, raises more than that. We were able to build the app because of that; no small chunk of change there. And the number of kids we’re able to reach with WinterKids Winter Games has doubled because of the Downhill 24.”

WinterKids Winter Games is a four-week series of outdoor physical activity, nutrition, family engagement and winter carnival challenges, all based on lessons in the WinterKids Guide to Outdoor Learning. It takes a lot of volunteers, hundreds even, including meteorologist Sarah Long of WMTW, one of 17 members of WinterKids’ board, as well as a frequent emcee for WinterKids fundraisers and Winter Games opening ceremonies at schools. “Julie’s enthusiasm and ability to keep an army of volunteers active is impressive,” Long says.

Mulkern and two-time Olympic champion snowboarder Seth Wescott at a WinterKids event at Sugarloaf. Photo courtesy of Mulkern

The Guide to Outdoor Learning is popular with teachers because the lessons are aligned to learning standards, making outdoor time count as classroom time, Mulkern says. “We’re not going in and saying, ‘Do more.’ We’re saying, ‘Meld this into what you’re already doing and we’re going to give you amazing resources, tons of incentives, technical support and whatever it is you need.’”

In January, 32 schools—two from each county in Maine—competed in the Winter Games to accumulate points toward winning a cash prize of up to $5,000 for their school.

“The schools we choose are generally in a lower socioeconomic region, where we can bring resources,” says Educator Director Marion Doyle. “We’re not going to turn them into snowboarders but we provide them an opportunity to get outside and have fun and enjoy the natural resources we have in Maine.”

Participating schools are, without exception, rural—some much like where Mulkern grew up. Burlington is so small she’d walk to school with her dog and he’d turn around and go back home.

Mulkern’s son Johnny readies a snowball to hurl at his mother. Photo by Heidi Kirn

“We were very active in the outdoors, including in the winter,” she says. “We’d sled down dirt roads covered in ice. I remember pretending I was on downhill skis on our cousin’s huge hill, but I had cross-country skis on. Super scary. We did all sorts of stuff like that all the time. That’s just what you did.”

In contrast to that active—albeit daredevil—lifestyle Mulkern grew up in, today nearly 30 percent of incoming kindergarteners are overweight or obese.

“What is great about our mission that kids can try things. We can offer them the tools to get a discount or do something free and have the equipment and people there to teach them. The success rate skyrockets, and they’ll be far more likely to be successful at building a habit and becoming a lifelong enthusiast.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who has a love-hate relationship with winter.