Call of the Wild
These nonprofits are using nature to spark confidence in kids and young adults. Together they’re breaking down barriers while building up communities that nurture growth and healing.
Photos by: First Descents
There’s a rejuvenation that comes with an outdoor adventure. Going on a long hike, jogging in the park or even just sitting on the back porch can bring a sense of calm and relief.
So it makes sense that programs such as Explore Austin and First Descents would take participants on outdoor adventures to learn about themselves and empower each other through team-building activities.
Photo by: Explore Austin
Explore Austin is a local program that provides underserved youth with leadership training, long-term mentoring and outdoor exploration. Participants, referred to as explorers, begin the program as sixth-graders and will stay on until they graduate high school. That’s more than 1,300 hours spent with their mentors and teammates, learning and growing in confidence, character and courage.
First Descents has similar programming, but serves young adults impacted by cancer. Focused on the age group 18-39, this program works tirelessly to improve the long-term survivorship of participants by helping them rediscover their strengths and find a community among their peers.
Both programs are free, so cost doesn’t hinder participation. For Explore Austin, this means kids can build skills without limitations, and they’ll have the opportunity to meet new friends and conquer challenges throughout their experiences.
“We actually have a piece of the underlying curriculum based on a model we call ACES, which was developed by our three founders,” CEO of Explore Austin, Ann Jerome says. “It means that we want the kids and the mentors to be action-oriented, courageous, excellent teammates and strong communicators. And then on top of that, we layer on other developmental assets, whether it’s self-competence, social media, self-esteem or bullying. And as the kids grow, the conversations become richer and more mature.”
Once a month, explorers and mentors come together to work on these skills. They do so by taking weekend trips around the area and working on curriculum through activities like hiking, rock climbing and canoeing. This helps prepare them for their Summer Wilderness Trip, which is a week-long adventure where they get to practice the skills they’ve learned and spend time bonding with fellow explorers.
First Descents also has a strong focus on team building and community. The organization was founded by professional kayaker, Brad Ludden. His aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s, and soon after her diagnosis, he started to see how the kayaking trips they took together benefited her during treatments.
“And he had this realization,” Becca Rohrer, Senior Marketing Manager at First Descents, says. “That if the experience was so effective for her, it would probably be really incredible for other young adults impacted by cancer. Within the oncology space, the age range of 18-39 is the most underserved demographic across the board. There’s 70,000 diagnoses every year in that age range, and they don’t really fit into a treatment category. Most of them are treated in the pediatric or geriatric sector.”
It’s because of these statistics that First Descents provides week-long outdoor adventures for young adults and empowers them to outlive their diagnosis.
“A few years ago we started our local adventure community, affectionately known as FDTributaries,” Rohrer says. “It’s now in 16 major cities across the country, Austin included.
And those were really meant to be an ongoing support system when people left their week-long program and went back home.”
The FDTributary in Austin provides weekend getaways for those local to the area. They are also the perfect opportunity for someone to experience the support First Descents offers if a week-long trip isn’t possible. Recent tributaries included rock climbing at Enchanted Rock and kayaking in Port Aransas.
The mentors at Explore Austin try to build a similar support system for explorers. The organization creates teams of 15 explorers and then carefully matches five mentors to each team, a ratio of 3:1. The mentors commit to at least six years in the program and get to be there as their explorers grow through different stages of life.
Jerome believes it’s the adventure piece of the organization that truly makes the experience unique.
“Not only are the kids bonding with their peers and their mentors, but they’re also seeing themselves outside of any environment they’ve ever been in before,” she says.
She describes one of the trips this summer when she joined a team canoeing down the Buffalo River in Arkansas.
“We had to get from point A to point B with a group of ninth grade girls and five mentors, and they were awesome,” Jerome says. “We did it all: set up our tents, filtered our water, and moved 50 miles down the river. And by the time the week was over, the girls were feeling incredible. It was farther than any of us had ever traveled down a river. And that’s part of it — learning that you can do it.”
Crystal Owens had a comparable experience on her First Descents trip. The program was exactly what she needed to realize she was still capable of pushing herself. Owens was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and prior to her diagnosis, she was a personal trainer and a nutritionist. At the time of her diagnosis, she was working full-time with two kids, so she thought it was just her body telling her to slow down.
“Then this whirlwind happened from diagnosis to surgery in 10 days and then treatment after that. After going through all that so quickly, it put me in a deep depression, and I started gaining weight and gave up my career,” Owens says. “When I heard about First Descents, I was skeptical at first, but I decided to go ahead and sign up. I didn’t really know what to expect, but when I got there, it was absolutely life-changing. They made me realize that I’m still capable and gave me an experience that I’d never done before, which was whitewater kayaking. It helped me to see that even though I was in a weird funk in my life, I could still do these things. I didn’t lose who I was just because of cancer.”
September marked one year since Owens went on her week-long trip in Jackson, Wyoming. Since then, Owens says she’s been taking care of herself. She’s lost 40 pounds and is training for a marathon.
“It’s just crazy the number of things you can learn in a week when you have somebody who believes in you and will help you gain confidence again,” she says.
A little confidence can go a long way, and Explore Austin and First Descents work hard to ensure that their participants can have these positive, life-changing experiences. Both organizations have professional trip leaders on each of their adventure programs to ensure everyone’s safety. At the same time, the programs motivate participants to push themselves, so they can realize their true potential when facing challenges, in the outdoors and in life.
“We’re trying to foster and instill that love of nature while teaching kids what to do in difficult situations,” Jerome says. “I think the one thing explorers really learn is to never ever give up.”
Maybe that’s the true power of adventure: when faced with adversity, we must learn to overcome.