Helping You Get Youth Outdoors

Johanna McCloy wrote several articles as a freelance journalist for Truth Atlas, a magazine “featuring stories about people and ideas making the world a better place”. Truth Atlas provided permission to reprint her articles here. 


OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA–“Awesome!” That’s a word you’ll often hear from urban kids when they experience the wilderness for the first time. Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT) has been making that possible since 1999 by helping teachers and youth workers get urban kids outdoors. From front country camping experiences to backpacking expeditions, 33,000 youth have been led to the wilderness since BAWT’s founding, and 1,300 individual teachers/youth workers have been trained to take them there.

BAWT Executive Director Scott Wolland, Limantour Spit, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

BAWT Executive Director Scott Wolland, Limantour Spit, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

“We know that going to the wilderness can be a life-changing experience,” says Scott Wolland, 46, BAWT’s executive director and CEO. “Not everyone has equal access and we want to make especially sure that it becomes possible for under-served kids, since they are less likely to go to the wilderness without assistance.” In 2013, youth of color made up 85% of the total youth who went on BAWT supported trips.

Getting kids outdoors and active helps to address a condition known as Nature-Deficit Disorder, a term coined by researcher Richard Louv in his bestselling book, “Last Child in the Woods,” which outlines the physical, psychological, and emotional tolls that a lack of exposure to nature can engender, including obesity, attention-deficit-disorder and depression. The amount of time kids spend in front of screens is also an issue. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from 2010 found that North American youth spent an average of 7.5 hours of screen time per day (including computers, TVs, or mobile devices) between 2008-2009—a figure that has increased in the ensuing years.

“There’s data that shows that when kids are connected to the outdoors, their grades go up and their self-esteem goes up, as well as their ability to co-operate with each other,“ says Scott. “I know from first-hand experience that it’s transformative for young people and adults to be outside for the first time. Maybe they’ve never seen the North Star, they may have never heard the ocean roar at night, they may not have seen the stars or a waterfall up close, they may not have seen a salmon migrating upstream, they may never have seen a deer really up close. That’s really a powerful experience. I’ve also seen how kids who aren’t necessarily leaders in the classroom become leaders in the outdoors, because that’s where they thrive; that’s their best learning environment. They’re better there than sitting behind a desk.

Teachers and youth workers on a five-day Wilderness Leadership Training Course. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

Teachers and youth workers on a five-day Wilderness Leadership Training Course. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

“We know that with the pressure of fast-paced life, this experience makes a welcome change,” he adds. “They get more connected with themselves and each other in new ways, they learn how to rely on each other and use teamwork, and for some kids an opportunity to be quiet and listen to the silence can also be profound. They may have not had a 72-hour period where they didn’t hear a car honking or worry about violence in their community; it’s a whole different world.”

Bay Area Wilderness Training was founded in 1999 by Kyle McDonald, who modeled his West Coast organization on the “training the trainer” approach of the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston, where he was from. For Kyle, it made sense to train teachers and youth workers because they already have a connection with youth and a level of trust in their community. To complement that training, BAWT also provides free camping and backpacking equipment—located in gear libraries–for all the youth.

When Kyle left BAWT in 2012 to create a national network of similar programs called the Outdoors Empowered Network, Scott, who’d previously been the director of the Glen Miller Environmental Education Center at Point Reyes and Director of Operations for the Turtle Island Restoration Network, was an ideal replacement. His immediate aim was to see the gear libraries looking empty, and to make that a constant. He’s succeeding. In 2013, Scott oversaw a 38% increase in the number of BAWT supported trips and an additional 33% youth served over 2012.

Elementary school students on camping trip using BAWT gear. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

Elementary school students on camping trip using BAWT gear. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

BAWT serves youth in 10 counties in the San Francisco Bay Area and has two gear libraries in Oakland and Milpitas. It also partners with the Crissy Field Center at the Camping at the Presidio Program (CAP) in San Francisco, where there is a third gear library. Each gear library can serve up to 60-80 kids and is organized by categories of clothing. along with hiking boots, tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, stoves and more. Trained leaders pick up the gear there and bring it to the kids.

BAWT’s professional wilderness leadership training for teachers and youth leaders comes in two forms: Front Country Leadership Training, a two-day training that teaches them the basics of camping; and Wilderness Leadership Training, a five-day training that teaches the essentials for leading a backpacking trip. They also offer several courses in Wilderness Medicine. “There are teachers who may really want to take the courses but they can’t afford it, so we give them mini-grants to pay for the hiking permits and maybe some of the food,” Scott says.

Once outdoors, what teachers do is up to them. They don’t have to teach a science curriculum. They might be teaching Spanish or they might be teaching art; they determine their own focus area, as long as they use Leave No Trace wilderness ethics and let the wilderness be a tool for connecting with the kids. “We promote a diverse community of educators and of youth getting outdoors and we foster the values of calculated risk-taking,” Scott says. “With the right training, it’s okay to cross a creek or go off-trail. Our society is very risk-adverse and some principals are fearful about kids going on these trips, so we train teachers how to be safe out there. We promote environmental stewardship and a culture of learning.”

Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

Trained leaders throughout the Bay Area are also forming a growing network. One kid might go into nature several times with different organizations that are borrowing BAWT’s gear. Roughly 200 organizations come through there each year.

One of the organizations benefiting from BAWT training and free gear loans is Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), whose mission is to prevent juvenile crime and incarceration through legal education, leadership training, and one-on-one mentoring. A part of their program is a multi-day trip to the wilderness with leadership training. Tara Schmidt, who was acting San Mateo County director for FLY and led several of those trips, recounts, “I remember it was really cold one morning. I was startled when two youth exclaimed ‘Tara, QUICK, get the camera. We are doing teamwork!’ Before packing out that day, a few of us were brave enough to jump into the lake that had been frozen over earlier that morning. Once we were dried off and back on the trail, one of the kids, still in an adrenaline-filled voice, said, ‘Man, I feel great! That was better than an antidepressant!’”

As a nonprofit, BAWT is funded through donations and foundation support. It also sponsors two adventure fundraising trips per year for anyone who wants to raise money for the organization: Backpacking for Kids and Climbing for Kids. There’s added incentive: raise $3,500, and you get $1,500 worth of brand-new climbing equipment; raise $1,500, and you get $500 worth of new backpacking gear. Motivated volunteers also help at Wednesday evening “Discovery Sessions” of free pizza and training that includes volunteer time in the “gear infirmary,” doing such things as sewing and patching torn tents and backpacks.

“Helping you get youth outdoors!” is BAWT’s slogan. So get to it. As Scott says, “It’s a whole different world.”

Featured photo: BAWT “Climbing for Kids” fundraisers at the top of a summit. Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training

Want to Get Involved?

10298979533_b3fe20bdac_bBay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT) a project of Earth Island Institute, was founded with the idea that California’s bountiful wilderness areas are a vast – yet untapped – resource for local youth-serving organizations. BAWT promotes the wise use of these national, state and regional parks through our professional wilderness leadership training. Then, we connect the teachers and youth workers to our outdoor gear libraries. That way, youth organizations and schools may outfit their groups for trips of their own – free of charge!

We believe that well led trips to granite cliffs, isolated beaches and ancient redwoods provide youth with powerful, life changing experiences.

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