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Foreign ski workers stranded by virus get helping hand

MARSHFIELD, Vt. – They were far away from home -- young adults from Latin America, working seasonally at U.S. ski resorts. Then the coronavirus arrived, even before the snows departed.

Though some made it home, others were stranded. But they were not abandoned.

The resorts have stepped up to support workers like Antonella Atto, of Lima, Peru, who returned for a third season to work at Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont during her college’s summer break. The 22-year-old had planned to fly home in mid-March, but when the pandemic closed Peru’s borders she was stuck with dozens of others from Peru and Argentina.

As they await word on when they might get home, Jay Peak delivers them food and houses them in condominiums at no cost. At the same time, the resort is trying to get them onto flights home and to the airport, hours away. A resort official checks in with each student daily.

The students feel like they have family here, said Atto.

“I know that it’s hard for everyone but we feel really safe in here,” she said.

Around the country, more than 1,500 young adults from Latin America on so-called J1 visas are estimated to remain in the U.S., according to Rafael Espinoza, CEO of Universal Student Exchange. U.S. ski areas employ about 7,500 such visa holders each year, according to the U.S. Ski Areas Association.

In Colorado, about 80 Ecuadorian workers for Vail Resorts are stranded.

Susy Osorio-Kinsky of Denver, a native of Ecuador, said she is working with Ecuadorian officials to charter a plane to get them home. Ecuador closed its borders the same week Vail shut its resorts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Some workers are staying with family or friends in the U.S., but many didn’t have anywhere to go.

Many of the workers are staying rent-free in employee housing. Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz and his wife have donated $1 million to create a new fund to help active, furloughed and seasonal employees who intend to return to work when the crisis eases.

At Waterville Valley in New Hampshire, the few remaining international visitors are also staying in employee housing rent-free. The resort started a kitchen to feed them, with the base lodge’s head chef preparing a hot breakfast and a dinner for curbside pick-up. It’s also providing transportation to a nearby town so they can fetch groceries and other supplies.

At Vermont’s Jay Peak, employees wearing protective face masks and clothes deliver groceries once a week to the now 23 stranded workers, giving them gloves and masks to wear during the exchange.

Twice this past week, a nearby restaurant, The Belfry, provided dinners of steak, chicken picatta or salmon, with risotto and vegetables on Monday and paella or a pork chop on Thursday.

Melissa Sheffer, the resort’s director of rooms and community engagement, has been working around the clock to get the students home on humanitarian flights provided by Peru.

Sheffer, who speaks Spanish, checks in with the students each day by phone or FaceTime. She also occasionally fields calls from their parents.

“It’s been this family sort of atmosphere now,” she said. “They’re happy, as happy as they can be.”

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AP reporters Thomas Peipert contributed to this report from Denver and Kathy McCormack from Concord, New Hampshire.

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While nonstop global news about the effects of the coronavirus has become commonplace, so, too, are the stories about the kindness of strangers and individuals who have sacrificed for others. “One Good Thing” is an AP continuing series reflecting these acts of kindness.