‘Kids need to have multi-day expeditions to affect change.’
By David Clucas
Think back to your earliest memories outdoors — they’re likely the foundation that brought you to the industry, shaped your respect for the environment and delivered a happier, more active lifestyle.
Not every child and teenager gets those early outdoor opportunities. It’s especially tough for underserved and disadvantaged kids in the nation’s big cities. Sure, there might be a couple hours outside at the playground or on a basketball court, but there are few opportunities to fully immerse themselves in nature.
“Kids need to have multi-day expeditions to affect change,” said Big City Mountaineers Executive Director Bryan Martin. “It’s on that second or third night in the backcountry that you see something change inside these kids. The turning point doesn’t happen in one day.”
Big City Mountaineers, based in Golden, CO, has been helping spur that outdoor inspiration for inner-city youth — leading more than 7,300 kids on 700 week-long wilderness expeditions with the help from 5,000 volunteers and millions in donations, mostly from the outdoor industry — for the past 25 years.
“That’s 36,000 nights under the stars for kids who wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise,” Martin said.
The non-profit’s mission is to build life skills for kids through the outdoors. Research shows that experiences in nature reduce stress, improve physical health, lead to better education outcomes and build civic mindedness, Martin said.
Reaching The Right Kids
Big City Mountaineers (BCM) isn’t an open-enrollment camp. Well-to-do parents can’t drop off their kids for free activities. Rather, the non-profit works closely with youth agencies in six cities — Boston, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area — to identify teens age 13 to 18 who would most benefit from the expeditions.
“Because of this model, the kids we serve are 85 percent racially diverse, 50 percent from a single-parent or foster home, and nearly 90 percent on a reduced or free-lunch program,” Martin said. “These aren’t bad kids, they just lack opportunity.”
Through its donations, BCM outfits the kids head-to-toe (each goes home with a free pair of hiking boots), and covers logistics, transportation and meal costs. About 10 to15 expeditions are held outside its served cities every summer.
And BCM’s reach goes beyond just a week outdoors. Local agencies help prepare kids for the trip and then help carry forward what they’ve learned afterward. On every expedition, at least one person from the agencies attends.
While BCM has proven itself over the past quarter century, it recently launched a three-year plan to expand its services to reach more youth and play a larger role in its communities.
While it’s still providing multi-day expeditions, the group has begun serving 8 to 12-year-old kids on 24-hour, overnight outdoor trips. It’s been doing so outside Denver for the past five years, and this summer will start in the Boundary Waters near Minneapolis. The idea is to reach out to younger ages with these introductory trips, then come back to some of the same kids for the multi-day expeditions.
On the other end of the age spectrum — those above 18 years old — BCM works with its graduates to become future mentors through “alumni trips” that include a leadership component, Martin said. “Some of them will become staff for our overnight camps,” he said, and that could lead to further opportunities.
“Our hope is that as we graduate our really exceptional leaders, that we’ll be able to work with industry brands and retailers to find internships and jobs for them.”
How To Help
For an industry that consistently identifies the importance of youth participation outdoors, BCM is a partner to seek with multiple avenues for brands and retailers to join the cause.
Volunteers are always needed and numerous brands, including Eddie Bauer, Cascade Designs and Smartwool, have donated their staff’s time to help lead entire expeditions. There’s value for brands to connect with youth of these demographics, Martin said. “The expeditions are not only powerful for the kids, but the volunteers, too.”
Donations are, of course, another big way to help. The nonprofit brings in about $1 million a year, but is looking to grow that amount by 20 to 25 percent over the next three years to fund its expanded initiatives.
BCM worked with the The North Face, for example, which donated $1 for every back-to-school backpack it sold ($75,000 total) to the group. Footbed brand Sole raised $200,000 for BCM over the past eight years, donating proceeds from its Ed Viesturs sole. And this past holiday season, Vail’s Any Mountain retailer asked customers to “round-up” their purchases to the nearest dollar with the difference going to BCM, totaling $20,000, with an additional $10,000 matched by Vail.
“I could see a lot of our specialty retailers doing the same,” Martin said. “We’re open to all kinds of ideas.” It isn’t easy work garnering the donations, Martin admitted.
“There are dozens and dozens of companies (like those above) where I don’t even need to explain. They say ‘how can we help?’ But others — maybe more so than in the past — that say ‘well, we have to examine the rate of return to our business on this sponsorship.’ That’s a challenge for us. How can we shift that sentiment? There are plenty of benefits we deliver to our partners and the industry, but they’re not all going to be financial.”
The final main donation avenue for the nonprofit is open to any company or individual — BCM’s Summit For Someone program. Each year about 100 to 150 participants raise about $3,000 each from friends, family and co-workers, to fund BCM. Their reward? A professionally guided climb up America’s most iconic peaks, including Mount Rainier and the Grand Teton. Some companies have even developed retreats and corporate team building around the trips, Martin said.
Whether by volunteering or participating on a Summit For Someone climb, BCM is helping adults, too, get re-connected outdoors.
Photos courtesy Big City Mountaineers