Space to Belong: The Power of the Mountains to End Youth Homelessness

There is magic in the mountains—freedom, adventure, and a healing perspective that can change lives…

…but only if you are able to experience it. And many people, for a number of reasons, cannot. This is where Whistler’s Zero Ceiling comes in. Since 1997 they have been using mountain experiences to help expand horizons and empower young people in Southern British Columbia. And, ultimately, to help end youth homelessness.

A girl looks up into the forest canopy.

In the early years, Zero Ceiling focused on simply exposing youth to the sports of skiing and snowboarding, and helping young people facing homelessness move to Whistler and become snowboard instructors themselves. In 2008, that program evolved into the Work 2 Live program which offers other mountain town employment opportunities as well as stable housing, mental and physical health support, life skills education, personal goal setting and a wider variety of regular outdoor recreation activities.

“Those years where young people transition from a teen to an adult are important,” says Zero Ceiling co-Executive Director Lizi McLoughlin. “Those are the years where we figure out what we want to do, who we want to be, and where we want to go. So many young people are navigating this age while also facing barriers such as poverty, housing instability, or a lack of family support or resources. Work 2 Live provides them with housing, employment, support, and the opportunity to become part of a welcoming, accepting, and diverse community here in Whistler.”

With 114 graduates from the program since 2008, and nine spots open for winter 2023-24, Work 2 Live is about more than putting a roof over peoples’ heads and getting them a job. The transformative power of nature and the mountains in Whistler is a huge part of the success, McLoughlin explains, but it’s the connections these youth make with the community that truly open the doors to growth, a sense of belonging and overall well-being.

“Whistler is such a unique place,” McLoughlin says. “For so many people here, it started as a pipe dream—I can move to the mountains and make a sustainable life—but the people here have all made that happen, for themselves and each other. Whistler is a ‘famous destination’ but at the same time, it’s very transient—new people are always showing up and you can be who you want here, it’s very welcoming and inclusive. That culture is special, and it makes this place unique. There are support and housing programs all across the province but often the single most important thing we hear from our participants is that they got to learn to ski or snowboard and be in a space they had never imagined themselves in before.”

Those sorts of connections build self-worth, confidence, and stability. Speaking anonymously for a study conducted by Royal Roads University, one Zero Ceiling participant noted, “Living with this environment and these people… I feel like everyone should experience this at least once…The community and the solitude.”

Another spoke to the empowerment of seeing an actual list of what they had achieved during their time with Zero Ceiling. “I didn’t realize I was doing anything or getting anywhere and seeing that list really boosted me up. One lesson that stuck with me was that I wasn’t as bad of a person as I thought I was. And I was doing better than I thought I was.”


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Helping young people feel like they can accomplish things or have experiences that always felt out of reach can have a profound impact on their development. To this end, the Zero Ceiling Adventure Sessions brings participants as young as twelve years old up to Whistler Blackcomb for a complimentary day of gear rentals, instruction, and a chance to shred the slopes (in winter) or enjoy biking, hiking and zipline adventures in the warmer months.

“We have over 300 individuals a year joining us from shelters, youth programs, Indigenous communities and schools,” McLoughlin says. “Especially for youth from the Sea to Sky region who grow up looking at these mountains but haven’t had the resources to access them…Whistler is a mystery to a lot of people, so this demystifies it for them.”

A skier does a small jump on the slopes on Whistler Blackcomb.

Participants in the Adventure Sessions often do end up applying for the Work 2 Live program, and McLoughlin says her Christmas wishlist this year is pretty short. “We’d love a permanent house. Right now, we rent our homes and it’s amazing but if we owned a home we could serve more youth and do it in perpetuity. Unrestricted funding would be nice too. To know we will be here in another ten or twenty years’ time without having to stress about fundraising.”

After decades of successfully working with youth on a grassroots level, Zero Ceiling has evolved to now include fifteen full-time staff and five more casual employees. Their partnerships with employers and services across the Whistler community remain essential, and for the first time in 2019, they were also able to obtain support and funding from the Provincial and Federal Government programs for housing, employment, and decolonization (30% of Zero Ceiling participants are Indigenous and the organization recently developed an “Auntie / Uncle” support role to better align with the cultural backgrounds of Indigenous youth).

A girl laughs as she eats food.

In December 2023, two Zero Ceiling staff will travel to New Zealand to present at the 17th annual World Leisure Congress, a collection of tourism professionals from around the globe looking to learn how to better integrate community wellbeing and social and environmental sustainability into their tourism, sport and recreation sectors.

“There are always jobs to be filled in tourist towns,” McLoughlin says. “And programs like ours can be mutually beneficial for everyone. Plus, we can learn from what others are doing.”

Pairing that fluidity to learn and adapt with Zero Ceiling’s original guiding principles of unconditional love, and the idea that the land can heal lives has already produced astounding results in the lives of so many youths. And while the mountains may be the magic, for McLoughlin it’s the people that keep everything flowing.

“That is my favourite part for sure—the people. The youth we work with…I’ve been so lucky to have learned from all these incredible relationships with amazing people. But also our staff, our volunteers, our community partners…all these people who show up every day with the shared purpose of building a community that includes everyone and gives everyone an opportunity. We can always do better but I truly am so grateful for the people in this place.”

In November, one of their amazing supporters kickstarted a wave of generosity with a $10, 000 donation and the Zero Ceiling team is trying to turn it into $20,000 by December 5th. Here’s your chance to make a difference and be part of this heartwarming challenge.

To donate to Zero Ceiling or enquire about volunteering or fundraising, take a look at their website and get in touch with their team.


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Feet Banks moved to Whistler at age 12 so his parents could live the dream and ski as much as possible. He ended up living it too. After leaving home Feet did a few good stints in warmer climates and 4 years of writing school before returning to the mountains to make ski movies, hammer out a journalism career and avoid the 9-5 lifestyle as long as possible. He’s been a hay farmer, a hole digger, a magazine editor and has a jump named after him on Blackcomb Mountain, Feet’s Air. It’s tiny.