Wilderness programs try to increase teen diversity in the outdoors

Outdoor recreation programs pull together to get underserved youth outdoors with the use of wilderness trips.
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Teen trips with organizations like Big City Mountaineers and NOLS open a window on some of the daunting challenges facing outdoor recreation growth among underserved youth.

Getting the boys to the first day of the trip is the hard part. Their lives revolve around the familiar streets and known playgrounds of their neighborhood—maybe out of habit, but more likely out of survival. You know what you’re doing, you know where you are, or you get played. Respect is hard to earn, easy to lose. Trust is harder. Trust is for suckers.

Courtesy of Amy Tam.

Photo courtesy of Amy Tam.

Even once their names are on the trip roster, getting the boys to the van that picks them up without someone getting arrested or violating his parole isn’t a given, says Juan Colonia. He’s the youth outreach specialist at The Canal Welcome Center, in San Rafael, California, and he sends a handful of at-risk 16- to 18-year-olds on wilderness trips with Big City Mountaineers (BCM). He knows the boys are going backpacking, an activity they’ve never done, in Yosemite, a place they’ve never been, with a group of mentors they’ve never met but will be asked to trust.

He knows they’ll have to give up their cell phones and their friends if they’re going to escape from lives that, in many cases, have never crossed the county line. They have to trust him.

“Developing trust is a huge thing, especially for the population we take on these trips,” Colonia says. “They don’t trust nature. They don’t trust adults. They don’t trust anyone.”

Colonia and his boys are up against more than most first-time wilderness travelers, but he has faith. He has seen the benefit. He knows that after the boys learn to trust, they’ll feel more comfortable asking for help, and that can keep them from trying to carry their stress alone or—worse—funneling it into self-destruction. He knows that a single intensive trip to the outdoors is powerful enough to change the trajectory of a life.

He also knows this is the only chance these boys might get.

Getting kids—all kids—outside has become a topic of increasing urgency in the last few years. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2015 Outdoor Participation Report, outdoor recreation among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped 5 percent between 2013 and 2014. In 2006, nearly 70 percent of kids between 13 and 17 played outside regularly. Now that number sits at 59 percent, the lowest ever recorded.

Sift out participation data by race, and watch the bar graph split; while around 65 percent of whites under 18 participate in outdoor recreation, less than 60 percent of Hispanics and only about 45 percent of blacks do.

“More kids are staying inside, and if we want to protect what we have—the nature, the wildlife, the camping access—we need to get the next generation to love it and have positive experiences outdoors,” said Eric Lamb, product line coordinator at Smartwool, one of BCM’s avid supporters and brand partners. “That’s the best way to maximize those resources for future generations.”

In outdoor programs aimed at underserved youth, creating lifelong wilderness stewards is a nice side benefit, secondary to saving lives. First and foremost is building trust.

During their five days in Yosemite, the boys from The Canal Welcome Center focus on learning a rotating schedule of duties, including cooking, trip-leading, scouting for water and navigating through Yosemite’s high country. Every night, the group gathers to reflect on the day—what went well, what didn’t and what the group needs to do to achieve the next day’s objectives.

On the second-to-last day, the crew summits Tuolumne Peak to a halo of views and the crowning moment of the trip. That night, they hold their “reflection roundtable” around a campfire. It’s easy to bare your soul by firelight. Especially when you’ve spent the day walking onward for the sake of the young men beside you, setting aside personal goals and desires for the good of a team.

“By the last night of the trip, kids who seemed pretty hardcore on day one started opening up about what’s hurt them in their lives and what they want to change,” said Scott Schriefer, one of the trip’s mentors. “It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced.”

BCM and Canal Welcome Center group summit Tuolumne Peak. Photo Courtesy of Scott Schriefer.

BCM and Canal Welcome Center group summit Tuolumne Peak. Photo Courtesy of Scott Schriefer.

Each year, thousands of kids like the boys from The Canal Welcome Center embark on trips like this through BCM or similar organizations that share a common mission: to disconnect kids from their routines, connect them to nature and each other and, ultimately, to change their lives.

There’s evidence it’s working. BCM hands out pre- and post-trip surveys to measure students’ “developmental assets,” which include internal qualities like self-esteem and self-advocacy as well as external advantages like positive role models and safe communities.

Dozens of organizations have used this survey, resulting in more than 4 million data points that draw statistically significant conclusions. As one might expect, the more assets, the better off the kid.

BCM’s survey results overwhelmingly show that trips boost the number of assets, at least directly after the trip, pushing at-risk youth into statistically safer categories.

As word of these programs’ efficacy spreads, trip rosters fill. When NOLS started its Gateway Partners program, which provides scholarships to students from underserved communities, it only had about 30 participants. Now, nine years later, it’s providing scholarships to 188. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunities Program reached 2,000 young people per year in 2002. Now it serves more than 37,000 annually.

However, measuring long-term gain is more difficult, as is ensuring it.

Rosemary Saal is one of the success stories. She attended her first NOLS trip in 2012, in British Columbia’s Waddington Range. In 2013, she joined NOLS’s Expedition Denali, the first African-American team to seek the summit.

Today, Saal plans to pursue a career as a guide, an occupation she might never have chosen if not for her scholarship-funded involvement with NOLS, and, before that, Passages Northwest Wilderness School, a Seattle organization that runs girls-only outdoor courses.

“Growing up, it was just me and my mom,” Saal said. The pair occupied motels and homeless shelters when they were between apartments and subsisted on a combination of welfare and disability payments. Her mother’s physical and financial limitations kept most outdoor activities out of reach, but Saal still spent her childhood climbing on anything she could find.

Saal’s mother encouraged her, and also filled out her daughter’s application to Passages Northwest, which Saal joined at the age of 12.

“There was no way I’d be able to do these programs without scholarships,” Saal said. “Passages didn’t turn anyone down. If a girl showed up wanting to do it, they would find a way to make it work for her.” That attracted participants from every corner of the socioeconomic spectrum.

“My first outdoor program was with diverse women role models, so I was never aware of the fact that this wasn’t the norm.” Because of this, Saal said, she entered the outdoor industry unhindered by knowledge of the challenges women often face.

Passages gave Saal focus and direction and recommended her for NOLS, where she now plans on working: She completed her 35-day instructor course in Alaska in June.

Like Saal, BCM Alum Amy Tam never spent much time outdoors as a child. Her mother was uninterested, and her father was unable. In 2012, Big City Mountaineers went looking for students at the East Bay Asian Youth Center, where Tam worked as a tutor. She’d heard of Yosemite but never had an opportunity to visit.

“I’d also never really been away from home, so maybe it was the appeal of being independent and away from family,” she said. Either way, she signed up. That June, Tam spent eight days backpacking through Yosemite with Big City Mountaineers. It was her first time camping.

“I don’t think I fully understood the challenge of it before I put on my backpack,” Tam said.

She kept her mind centered on the task of taking “one step at a time,” which became her trip mantra.

“I felt empowered to do anything I wanted to do with that notion," she said. Now she's pursuing a degree in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, headed toward a career in outdoor and environmental education. She’s gotten both her mother and her sister out on the trail, and they hike together as a family now.

Instructor Pablo Miranda teaches rappelling class. Photo Courtesy of NOLS.

Instructor Pablo Miranda teaches rappelling class. Photo courtesy of NOLS.

As is common among outdoor program alums, Tam developed a love for the land, but not just the land her boots had touched. When she returned from her first backpacking trip with BCM, she started researching hikes near Oakland.

“I had no idea Oakland had such beautiful places. I had no idea what the park service had to offer,” she said.

Not everyone comes home so convincingly converted. In fact, Tam has known many participants who went on with their lives post-trip with no discernible change in trajectory. Much of the challenge of these organizations is making a single trip last a lifetime.

For some people, one trip is enough; everything clicks on the first shot. Others need more immersion. Reunions, follow-up opportunities and second experiences serve as reminders of their soaring confidence after a successful summit.

As for The Canal Welcome Center’s BCM alumni? They’re doing well.

“They’re working full time, going to school and staying out of trouble,” Colonia says.

One of BCM’s post-trip check-ins is a reunion dinner several months after the trip. Five of the six mentees attended the reunion. The boys brought their families. One mother addressed the group, telling them her son had been more attentive, helping around the house more ever since the trip. From probation and drug abuse to the model son, his transformation had started with wilderness.

This story first appeared in the Day 1 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.

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