With summer coming to an end and school starting back up, it’s time to #OptOutside and enjoy the last few weeks of Austin’s summer before cooler temperatures start to creep back into Texas. Plus, since adjusting to another new year will be a tough time for many kids, soaking up the sun these next few weeks will be so important. Luckily, Explore Austin can help!
Founded in 2006, Explore Austin uses mentorship programs, leadership-based activities and outdoor adventure to empower youth to reach their full potential. Each member of the organization’s team is dedicated to the comprehensive wellbeing of all young people in the community.
Getting outside and moving is essential to building and maintaining mental health for any age. According to the American Psychological Association, studies have even shown that spending time outdoors reduces cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone. When cortisol levels are lowered, it can lead to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Local organizations, such as Explore Austin, ATX Kids Club and Rock-About Climbing Adventures, recognize the importance of building healthy habits and long-term relationships. Because it’s vital to begin having a sense of community at a young age, some organizations will begin offering programs to students as young as sixth grade.
“We believe that connecting with the outdoors is a great way for children to build self-confidence, a sense of adventure and an appreciation for the earth,” says Hannah Bruno, the marketing and events manager at Explore Austin. “The outdoors offers the perfect backdrop to teach valuable life skills like teamwork, resilience and strong communication.”
Although Austin is somewhat of a hotspot for green spaces, there are factors that can make accessibility to those spaces near nonexistent. Bruno explains that one of these main factors is socioeconomic status. By the numbers, Austin may be in the 80th percentile for green space, but it is only in the 40th percentile for accessibility to green space across racial and socioeconomic demographics.
“Unfortunately, in the U.S., green spaces are largely nonexistent in lower-income areas,” Bruno says, “which heightens the urgency for getting kids and explorers outside.”
Explore Austin is an organization that works to bridge this gap with its six-year adventure and mentorship program. The program matches high potential, sixth grade “explorers” with caring and committed adult mentors and starts them on a six-year journey. This includes nine of its Saturday Challenges (including climbing, biking and hiking) and its week-long Summer Wilderness Trip that increases in difficulty and distance from home each year.
“All of the activities are in and of themselves physical: backpacking, climbing, canoeing, mountain biking and mountaineering,” Bruno says. “So, just by taking part in the program, our explorers are dropped into somewhat challenging physical activities. The experience of engaging in these new, sometimes scary activities with structure, guidance, encouragement and teamwork helps explorers build leadership skills.”
Although Explore Austin works to engage its explorers (the students) in fun yet challenging activities, it also wants to make sure that the explorers know that they are safe and comfortable. Since many of the explorers start out at a young age, it can be scary being far from home, which is why Explore Austin carefully considers its adventure destinations.
“While we want to provide an exciting and beautiful backdrop for our explorers to try out their skills, we also emphasize choosing locations that cater to the experience level of our program participants,” Bruno says. “Explore Austin visits Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming — all locations with beautiful scenery and exciting opportunities for outdoor exploration.”
Bruno explains that it is immeasurably important for children to have mentors. Building nourishing, encouraging and supportive relationships with adults (or older children) can help kids determine a positive sense of self, a purpose within life and goals for the future. Additionally, having strong role models can help kids cultivate an orientation toward growth while also providing a stable and comforting presence.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), stable and good-quality relationships are extremely important for long-term well-being.
“Often, a child has to fail before they succeed in climbing to the top of a boulder or navigating a steep trail on a bike,” Bruno explains. “So, having a strong and trusting relationship allows the child to feel confident in trying new — and sometimes scary — challenges.”
Programs like Explore Austin that include ages across the board give students plenty of time to build strong relationships with their mentors and peers. Over the course of the program, each student spends more than 1,300 hours with their mentors and fellow Explore Austin teammates.
Victoria Uriostegui, a 2021 high school graduate and former Explore Austin explorer, explains how much her confidence in herself and her abilities has grown throughout the program.
“I look at all I’ve done, and I think about all the opportunities I missed before the program because I thought they were ‘too hard,’” Uriostegui says. “Now thinking back, I realized that seeing my teammates and mentors — who were all amazing women by the way — persevere has made me confident and proud. I am determined to be strong like them and to steadily hold the reins of my future.”
Many of the adventures they go on are what Bruno likes to call “type two fun,” which she explains as an experience that is challenging in the midst of it, but really fun in retrospect.
“The collective challenge of backpacking for a week or rappelling for the first time down a 30-foot cliff helps explorers forge strong bonds with each other, their mentors, trip leaders and the environment,” Bruno says. “The shared challenge, unique experiences and empowering atmosphere and all of the jokes and memories help, too!”
Jude Zawaideh is also a former explorer — now headed off to college. He says he is proud of the bonds he built and excited to continue strengthening them, as they were the people he spent a week with every summer, conquering challenges and growing into who he is now.
“We faced and overcame our fears together and really began to develop respect for each other,” Zawaideh says. “Even though our time in the program is officially over, I know I can trust and lean on my team and my mentors forever.”