Raequan Wilson hadn't considered taking up cross-country skiing until five years ago, when representatives from Minneapolis' Loppet Foundation visited his middle school to recruit students for a team.

Raequan didn't know anybody in his north Minneapolis neighborhood who cross-country skied — basketball and football are the most popular sports — but he doesn't mind being different. So he joined the Anwatin Middle School Ski and Outdoor Adventures Team.

"Most of my coaches said I was a natural," Raequan said. "I like doing things I'm good at. I was really into it."

Now 16 and a junior at South High School, he is on his school's ski team. He has stayed involved with the Loppet Foundation, coaching younger skiers and working as a counselor at the organization's Adventure Camps for children. The experiences have even changed his life off the trail.

"Skiing is a lifestyle. You have to have good grades, you have to dress a certain way," Raequan said.

What started as a single winter activity has turned into something far bigger for Raequan. The same can be said about the Loppet Foundation.

From its founding 12 years ago, when a handful of people decided to launch a cross-country race, the foundation has grown into a big and complex organization with eight full-time staffers, 12 part-time employees, 40 coaches throughout the year and 1,500 volunteers. Based in Theodore Wirth Park, it now offers dozens of programs year-round.

The best known is the City of Lakes Loppet, which begins Friday and continues through Sunday. Once a single race, it has become an annual festival drawing upward of 10,000 participants in a wide variety of races — not just on skis but also fat-tire bikes, dog sleds, snowshoes — and activities including snow sculpting, fireworks and the Luminary Loppet, a dramatic display of hundreds of volunteer-crafted ice lanterns.

Less well-known are the activities the foundation operates the rest of the year: school programs, weeklong youth camps, sporting clubs for adults, and a Nordic racing program that has won several titles.

John Munger, a former attorney who helped found the Loppet in 2002 and now is the foundation's executive director, said the nonprofit organization has always enjoyed enthusiastic community support. The Loppet and Wirth Park are among the features that make Minneapolis a great place to live, he said.

"I can go skiing during the day and go to the Guthrie Theater in the evening and not have to drive 150 miles to do it."

Neighborhood focus

The Loppet Foundation has encouraged families in north Minneapolis, where Wirth Park is located, to take advantage of the park.

Elsewhere in Minneapolis, residents tend to value their neighborhoods for their parks and lakes, while residents of north Minneapolis are more inclined to speak of the area's affordability, said Anthony Taylor, the Loppet's adventures director. Yet Wirth, which at 759 acres is approximately the size of New York's Central Park, is the largest park in the Minneapolis system.

"If you live in north Minneapolis, you are connected to the best natural resources in the Twin Cities," he said.

The Loppet runs programs at nearby elementary and middle schools that serve primarily lower-income students. Of the 6,500 kids who've participated in Loppet programs, 5,500 are from north Minneapolis.

Like Raequan, kids involved in Loppet programs often stick around as they get older, becoming coaches or counselors and serving as role models for younger children.

"We represent youth that would not typically be skiing," Taylor said. "We have ski teams with significant numbers of black, Hispanic and Hmong kids, and they're really skiing well. Are we trying to diversify cross-country skiing? No, we're trying to diversify experiences for kids in this community."

Welcome Center plans

The Loppet Foundation has been working in cooperation with the city's Park and Recreation Board to make Wirth an even more attractive destination.

In recent years, the park's trail system has grown from eight kilometers to almost 27 kilometers. Loppet volunteers have planted trees and invested some $300,000 in private money, mostly for snow-making equipment.

"I think as a shared partnership between the Park Board and the Loppet we're absolutely able to provide better services and more expansive services than if either of us were doing this alone," said Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller. "Obviously there's a larger user group that's taking advantage of that park."

The next big plan is to build a $7.5 million Adventure and Welcome Center in the park, a facility for cross-country skiing, golfing, snowboarding, mountain biking and snow-tubing. It would include an outdoor area with trails, hills and event spaces. An all-season building would offer gathering spaces, a sales and rental shop, food concessions and other amenities.

The project would combine $1.5 million in state bonding authority, infrastructure changes by the Park Department and $3 million or more in private donations that the Loppet Foundation has committed to raise.

The specifics aren't solidified yet — public discussions of it will begin from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the City of Lakes Loppet's Main Tent — but construction is expected to begin in 2016.

The idea is to create a space for experienced outdoor sports enthusiasts and novices.

"It's a place where, if you're into these activities, you'll feel like you've come home," Munger said.

"And if you aren't engaged in these activities, you'll also feel like you've come home," Taylor added.

"Whatever your activity this is, this is where you'll live," Munger said.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583