Episode 182: Reach Out for a More Inclusive Outdoors

Episode 182: Reach Out for a More Inclusive Outdoors

We all have something to give when it comes to making the outdoors more inclusive and accessible for all. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can reach out and support existing organizations.

In this episode, created in partnership with Sierra Designs, learn about four incredible nonprofits doing the work to help create more opportunities in the outdoors for People of Color, LGBTQ+, disabled, and low-income families. But more than simply learning about the work that others are doing, our hope is that this episode will help you think about how you can do to make “reaching out” a practice in your own outdoor lives. Because change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we all have something to offer when it comes to making the outdoors a more equitable place for all to experience its benefits. 

Organizations featured in this episode: CO Blackpackers, Wildkind Closet, The Venture Out Project, & Outdoors For All

Find the episode below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you stream podcasts.

Featured in this episode: Patricia Cameron, Heather Balogh Rochfort, Brooke Froelich Murray, Perry Cohen, Alicia McConnell, & Thera Zylstra

Hosted & Produced by Gale Straub

A Production of Ravel Media

Sponsored by Sierra Designs

Resources

Sponsors and Discount Codes

    • Sierra Designs: Learn about their “Reach Out” Initiative here.

Organizations Featured in this Episode

Blackpackers

Blackpackers Founder Patricia Cameron

The Venture Out Project

Venture Out Project (founder Perry Cohen on far left); Photo by Palmer Morse, Sprucetone Films

Wildkind Closet

Wildkind Closet Founders Brooke Froelich Murray & Heather Balogh Rochfort

Outdoors for All

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TRANSCRIPT

Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Most people would say that the outdoors are for everyone, that parks and public lands should be accessible to all, and that everyone deserves to safely enjoy time in nature. But as we’ve talked about in many past episodes of She Explores, it’s just not that simple. There are a lot of barriers that keep people away from enjoying the benefits of the outdoors. These barriers include lack of funds, gear, knowledge or transportation; they include barriers that have been reinforced by discrimination, racism, and histories of oppression. There are also barriers of feeling like you don’t belong because you don’t see anyone like you outside doing the activity you are interested in, whether that be because you are a Black or Indigeonous person, a Person of Color, someone who is LGBTQ+, a disabled person, or are a parent in a lower income family.

As you heard at the top of the episode, as part of their “Reach Out” initiative Sierra Designs is supporting four organizations that are on the ground and actively working to help remove some of these barriers. They include: Blackpackers, Wildkind Closet, The Venture Out Project, and Outdoors for All.

On this week’s episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with each organization to learn a little bit more about their purpose and their impact.

But we wanted to take this concept one step further: Rather than simply learning about the work that others are doing, we also want to encourage you to think about how you can make “reaching out” a practice in your own outdoor life. So keep your ears out for advice for how to get involved with these organizations or volunteer within your own community. Because change doesn’t happen in a vacuum––we all have something to offer when it comes to making the outdoors a more equitable place for all.

First up, Colorado Blackpackers, or Blackpackers for short.

Patricia Cameron:

I just started doing this. I didn’t really do my first backpacking trip or camping trip until like 2017. I was 34. So I was older as a single mother, divorcee, hadn’t any of these things, you know, working a job, it wasn’t paying too too much. And I taught myself all the things that I now know for the most part.

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is Patricia Ann Cameron, the founder and executive director of Blackpackers.

Patricia Cameron:

If I can do it really, anybody can. I taught myself how to fish. I taught myself backpacking, then ultralight backpacking, and camping, and started learning how to maneuver my vehicle around the mountains and getting more comfort driving through them. I really came from, nothing, zero as an older adult and just a few years ago, I’m doing pretty okay. So I think people are inherently like pretty comfortable coming to Blackpackers events because I think, for the most part, people know my story behind it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Patricia is leading by example, but that’s just one way Blackpackers reduces barriers for folks:

Patricia Cameron:

My tagline is economic equity and outdoor recreation. And what I like to say is we meet people at the intersection of under-representation and economic vulnerability.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Blackpackers works to provide gear outdoor excursions and outdoor education for free or at a subsidized cost. And they also work to connect participants with volunteer opportunities, internships, jobs, and post-secondary education resources to create a pipeline from outdoor recreation to outdoor industry careers. In these ways they help to create economic equity in outdoor recreation.

Gale Straub:

What are some of the ways that you’re executing on that purpose this year?

Patricia Cameron:

It’s been a great year. We started a partnership with Arapaho basin – They’re a mountain here in Colorado. We’ve been taking people out during the winter. We’ve been doing skiing and snowboarding lessons. So in February we took almost 30 people up there and paid for their apparel, their gear, their lift ticket, and half the lesson. We’re doing that again in a couple of weeks, but that’s what we’ve been doing in the winter. In the summer. We just got a grant to teach entire families how to swim. So we’ll be doing that over the summer. And we also just partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. And so I will be traveling the state in Colorado and just showing people how to camp on state parks and taking them camping on state parks and providing the gear. And in non COVID times, Blackpackers would also pay for transportation like a chartered bus or some sort like we used to do. I’m not interested in big COVID buses right now, but in normal times you’d also pay for that.

Gale Straub – Narration:

To illustrate the impact of Blackpackers, I asked Patricia if she had any stories of how the organization has impacted people’s lives. She gave me an example of an event that happened before COVID.

Patricia Cameron:

Our first event was at 11 mile state park, and we were able to get a shuttle donated from Rocky mountain ride. And we took participants and drove them out to a live mall state park. And like I said, huge for me to be able to pay for transportation for people. Because I think especially in Colorado, we assume everyone has a car. And if they do have a car, we assume that that person has a car that can get over mountain passes. And then we also assume that even if they do have a car that can get over mountain passes, they have experience or the comfort level driving over that. So I, I like to, when I’m taking beginners out, especially take care of that part for them. And so the shuttle took them out to live in Wellesley park. There were 32 people. We had a cookout, we did a night hike.

Patricia Cameron:

They did a Leave No Trace workshop. They did a fly fishing and spin casting clinic. Uh, we also had a black woman come out who did yoga the next morning, and it was just such an amazing experience for a variety of reasons. And we were able to provide everything from their tent to their sleeping pad, to their sleeping bag, to, you know, their headlamps for the hike, all the food everything was paid for, but then being in a group of people of color and being able to experience the outdoors together. Uh, it was just amazing for me also to have that kinship because so often I’m outdoors by myself, but just seeing these entire families, you know, with their kids come out and enjoy camping for the first time. And when they wake up the next morning and realize that they’re alive, you know, like a bear didn’t eat them or they didn’t get blown away, whatever it is, you know, it was so awesome to just watch that transformation from people who were kind of like timid when they first got to love a mile to people who kind of got kind of cocky by the next day. So that was kind of excited for them.

Gale Straub:

Yeah. Have you heard from a lot of people after the fact, do those experiences stick with them and make them more likely to go off and do it on their own in some capacity?

Patricia Cameron:

Oh yeah. I have people who have started with me from the beginning and have branched out from one activity to the next, they went camping, another one to try skiing or snowboarding or, you know, going backpacking with them. I still am in touch with pretty much everybody who’s ever been involved with a backpacking trip. And it’s just so neat to see so many of them who weren’t necessarily as involved take pictures of their own hikes or take pictures of them taking their family out to do stuff and taking road trips to different parts of Colorado and kind of exploring. Uh it’s. It’s awesome.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. Yeah, that is awesome. So what role do volunteers play with Blackpackers?

Patricia Cameron:

A lot of the people who have volunteered time for Blackpacker is outside of our board, of course, are people who have had some kind of interaction with me or something I’ve done or have been a part of a Blackpackers event. I often have people who are willing to help shuttle people or drive if they need to, um, or people who have done that activity. And they don’t have like a official certification, but they’re helping each other out. So I’ve had like, you know, people of color and black men and black women come out, who’ve already skied the snowboarder who were super helpful to other people on the slopes. So they were getting used to it or those who’ve already camped. And, you know, we’re super useful in terms of sharing their knowledge, getting people to let their guard down a bit. So we don’t have a ton of volunteers, but when we is typically somebody that had already has a relationship with black packer, so it’s great. It’s like, you know, like I said, family, we keep seeing the same people.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Not only did I ask Patricia about the role that volunteers play. I also asked her how volunteers and others who want to help change the narrative of who recreates outside can reach out while not taking over in the process. You’ll notice that I asked this a few times throughout the episode because it’s important to ask of ourselves, how can we follow the lead of those we’re serving and how can we use our privilege to make the outdoors a more welcoming place?

Patricia Cameron:

There are a couple of things I always tell people it’s the same across the board. The number one thing is to find the people who are doing the work and throw your energy and resources behind and towards them. And that could be things like donations or volunteering or money or whatever it is, or amplifying their voices because I’ve found that people often like see a need and instead of researching, who’s already doing the work and they kind of try to run it into it themselves. And I understand that we have a lot of energy and passion for this, but I guarantee in pretty much every affinity group, there’s somebody doing that work and find that person and just give them the things they need and listen to them when they tell you what those things may be. Secondly, just do make sure you’re doing your part to deprogram yourself from a lot of the stereotypes around the outdoors.

Patricia Cameron:

I know that I still get a lot of people who kind of look at me sideways when I’m headed into the pool to take my son to swim lessons, or when I’m out in the back country. And they still remark that I’m the only black person they seen out there and kind of make jokes about black people not liking the outdoors or animals or something. I think people think they mean well, and they’re trying to identify with me, but it just makes me recognize even more than I normally do that. I am Black in a generally non-black space. And that does not feel comfortable to have that reminder all day long outside of what I already hear in my head. So I would just remind people to just stop acting like it’s something that is unusual and things that we don’t do. And maybe just try to work on some of that internalized stuff that we we’ve kind of all grown up with. It took us some time to work around.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. Yeah, absolutely.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Blackpackers has programming 12 months out of the year, and like you’ve probably gathered by now, it ranges from camping, hiking, and backpacking, to swimming, skiing, and snowboarding.

Patricia Cameron:

I’m just stoked to get out there, especially in the summer. And as we get vaccinated and hopefully things come and get closer to returning to the life that we knew prior to the pandemic. And I’m excited to meet anybody who wants to get out there and join black Packers and come out at our events. And personally, I am just looking forward to when I can get out on a long trail again.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Last year Patricia thru-hiked the Colorado Trail and I was one of her many followers on Twitter as she posted live updates. It’s definitely made her crave more time out on the trails!

Patricia Cameron:

Or spend like at least four or five days in the woods. Like pretty soon.

Gale Straub:

Uh, well, I hope you can get out too, selfishly. I hope that you, you tweet every now and then, because it was fun to see some of those, some of those tent tweets,

Patricia Cameron:

That’s what I did. I took it like, all right, get service. I tweeted on the trail and I did that because I really wanted to like bring people in, especially the people who did those things. And I wanted them to like, I don’t know, I kind of wanted to be casual about it. So whatever I had serviced, I tweeted pictures or talked about something silly I did, or to show people pictures of people I’ve met or the towns I was in. I really enjoyed interacting with people who saw what I was doing and thought to themselves, like, maybe I can try it because I spent the last few months because the pandemic is sitting on my butt, that was hilariously out of shape. And I started off like super, super slow and in a lot of pain. And by the end I was praying it other miles, like the more, um, advanced hikers. And so I like to tell people that if I can do it, I promise you, anybody can get out there.

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is what Patricia, and Blackpackers is all about. Inviting others in and showcasing what’s possible. Organizations like Blackpackers that help share knowledge, bring folks together, and level the economic field, are essential for making the outdoors more accessible. Learn more and support by donating money, gear, or time at COblackpackers.com.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

I mean, ultimately it’s about giving a greater access to the gear so that people can go out and get the opportunity to create those memories. Because if you don’t have the gear, you’re never even going to get the chance to have those memories. And that’s kind of, I think we’re both Brooke and I are focused more is we really want families to be able to have those outdoor memories together of sleeping in tents and jumping on sleeping pads in the morning to wake up their parents and all those things that we enjoy doing with our kiddos. We want to be able to help families have those same experiences to hang onto.

Brooke Froelich Murray:

That was a good one, Heather!

Gale Straub – Narration:

Another nonprofit that is working to directly address the issue of making gear more accessible for families, especially those with young kids who quickly outgrow gear and clothes, is WildKind Closet, which is the Non-Profit sister to the for-profit company WildKind Inc. I’ll let the two moms who co-founded WildKind Closet, Brooke Froelich Murray and Heather Balogh Rochfort, tell you about it. Here’s Heather.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

Whereas our LLC is a digital membership community to help families really level up their outdoor experience. Wild kind closet is dedicated to removing that barrier to entry for so many families because we know that outdoor gear is super expensive, super hard to get to. And it’s preventing a lot of families from getting outside because if they need to buy a $300 kid carrier before they can even think of taking their one-year-old hiking, they’re never going to go. So the goal of our nonprofit is to help provide that gear through seasonal loaners. And that way families can have an entire summer with our gear. That means they can get out and start to build that lifestyle around the outdoors.

Gale Straub – Narration:

And here’s Brooke,

Brooke Froelich Murray:

You know, the Wildkind Closet is still pretty new. We’re still developing the whole package of what we want to deliver, but a lot of it is, you know, education about how to care for gear.

Brooke Froelich Murray:

We also have a free family gear swap on Facebook where families can buy or trade used gear to save some money. And then with our sister company, the LLC, we have basically like a pro deal on different gear every month where if a family is unable to pay for a membership we have some scholarships to really help families get access to the affordable gear.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

And Brooke and I both, we both have some social media presence, more Brooke than me, for sure, but we both do a fair bit in the outdoor family space via Instagram and then some of my writing. And so we have followers and people that have reached out to us a lot over the years. And we both started to observe just anecdotally that literally the number one question we were getting was how can I find this gear at for a better deal?

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

Or what can I do? Can I, how can I take my kid hiking if I can’t afford the gear? And we were both starting to realize that everyone’s always talking about the benefits of getting kids outside. We know those benefits are there. Science tells us they exist. There’s no, there’s no doubt about it. Yay. That’s great. Get your kids outside, but not everybody can do that. And we were seeing that and all these questions from families when you’ve got a two year old that requires extra layers and extra caring and extra snacks and all these things, it just compounds the issue. And we were seeing that in these DMS, we were getting an email, these emails we were getting, and we’re like, there has to be a better way. And we started looking around and realizing there really wasn’t. So we figured if it didn’t exist yet, then here we are, a couple of moms will just do it herself.

Brooke Froelich Murray:

Well, we talk a lot about, you know, wanting to be more inclusive in the outdoor industry and, you know, a person we kind of started talking about how we wanted to a wild kind of be inclusive. We realized it needed to be a lot more than just sharing stories of diverse families. It meant that we needed to find a way to help any family. That’s interested to get out on the trail because having been in the outdoor industry for a little bit, I already had my eye on that $300 poco premium pack before my son was born and, you know, had it on my registry for what I wanted my family to help me go in on so I can go hike with him. But for a lot of families that can really be that thing that stops them, just knowing that they don’t really have a way to transport their kid or keep them comfortable or dry. I.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

It’s hard enough to get kids outside. There’s enough hurdles and obstacles involved for parents to begin with gear. Shouldn’t be one more on top of diapers.

Gale Straub – Narration:

WildKind Closet is set to launch JUST around the corner in May of 2021 within the state of Colorado. Heather and Brooke don’t have a network of volunteers, quite yet. But, they have big dreams for Wildkind Closet, and know that if they are to growit so that families around the United States can access seasonal loaners, it will take lots of gear donations and volunteers to ship and handle that gear. Thinking about how we can all help in small ways, I asked Brooke and Heather if they had thoughts on how to pass on used gear, to “reach out” and pay it forward tangibly. Here’s Brooke.

Brooke Froelich Murray:

More and more, we’re learning how important it is to pass along our gear instead of maybe trashing it or just thinking it hasn’t had another life in it. If you have something that you haven’t used in a couple of years, and you don’t think you’re going to use, don’t want to collect us anymore, find a family that you can pass along to it. And it can have another life.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

Kids are not going to wear something like a snowsuit. That’s 150, $175. They wear it for one season and they’ve grown out of it. But that snowsuit probably has five to seven years of use left in it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Why not pass on a snow snowsuit to other family members or other folks in need? Heather explains that there are multiple benefits.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

If you look at that in general, that’s a lot of money saved. It’s a lot more accessible for families to share the gear or even loan the gear. If you know, a friend is having a baby and you’re not sure you’re ready to part with a snowsuit or the chariot or whatever it may be, you can loan it to that friend for the season and just say, Hey, I want this back later. That’s an option too. And then the third thing that people don’t really think about is sharing gear like that. Loaning gear used gear. It’s all so much better for the environment too. You know, it minimizes a lot of the manufacturing chemicals, et cetera, et cetera. So not only are you helping out the humans, but you’re also helping out the planet too.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Another reason to pass gear on as a family is to pass on the lesson of sharing and giving with your children. Heather, and Brooke’s little ones are proof of this. Here’s Heather:

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

Lillian is only three and a half. So she’s, you know, she’s definitely a little chicken at this point, but she’s at the age bracket where sharing is a big thing. And we’ve been talking about it a lot at preschool and she’s an only child. So it’s something my husband and I have been super aware of too, because we don’t want her to be one of those only children that like doesn’t share. And I was talking to her about one of her friends up here about sharing her extra snowman’s because she had a couple of pairs in her bag. And one of her friends at preschool forgot to bring them. And so I was like, well, Liliana, do you think it would be a nice idea to share your extra mittens with your friends for the day? So your friend can play in the snow. And she got that little three-year-old look on her face and thought about it.

Heather Balogh Rochfort:

And she was like, yeah, mama, that would be nice. And so she gets her, her little spare mittens out and goes and shares them to her friend. And her friend was happy and put them on and went and they frolicked away. But she came running over to me and she was like, mama, mama. I shared. And I was thinking about it because again, she has no clue what we’re doing yet, but I like to think that that, that little life lesson on the sharing and the life lesson on the outdoor gear will somewhat combine and maybe she’ll grow up to want to take it over from us one day when we’re old and retired.

Brooke Froelich Murray:

I mean, in our little local group of friends here, my son’s the oldest. And so we’ve been lucky to be able to pass things down, even if I might want it back someday for Tatum, we’ve had a couple of snowsuits or shoes that have gotten passed with you friends. And it’s been really fun to see Huck be excited when we go for a hike and say, Oh, I used to have those shoes. You know, and I think it’s important that we’re already teaching our kids to have this idea of community and supporting others, you know, and not just having to collect and hoard, you know, getting to love something and then getting to pass it along for someone else to have an experience hiking or camping in it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

By providing seasonal loaners, WildKind Closet hopes to loan out gear so families can try out activities, figure out what they like doing outside as a family, and, as we heard from Heather, make memories together. There are so many different ways to use the privilege or resources you have to expand outdoor access for others. Even if you don’t have a lot of time or money to donate, you might have some gear or knowledge just waiting to be passed on. Learn more about WIldkind Closet at wildkindcloset.org. We’ll hear from two more wonderful nonprofits, after this:

Gale Straub – Narration:

We’re back. Affinity groups play a special role in creating a safer space to have conversations around the specific needs of particular groups of people. In fact, all of the organizations we talk to in this episode work to help provide outdoor access for a specific group of folks. The Venture Out Project, who we’ll hear from next, serves the LGBTQ+ community. While we typically highlight women on She Explores, we know there’s real value in hearing from other genders, especially when they’re best able to speak to and of the community they serve. Which is why we wanted to hear from Perry Cohen. Not only is Perry The Venture Out Project’s Founder and Executive Director––he also helps lead trips and train instructors. Here’s Perry talking about Venture Out Project’s purpose.

Perry Cohen:

The purpose of venture out project started with the idea being that we really wanted to help and trans folks get outside, learn some skills, build confidence, and meet other people. And pretty quickly the mission really evolved. And I think became much more clear in what I would say. Now we build and trans community and we use the outdoors to do it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

The Venture Out Project facilitates backpacking and wilderness trips for the queer, trans, and LGBTQ+ community in a safer and inclusive environment. They have trips for adults as well as youth trips.

Gale Straub:

The spark first came for you on an outing trip, right?

Perry Cohen:

Yeah. I was trying to decide if I should keep working in my corporate job or not. And I did what I, what I always did when I wanted to figure out like one of life’s big problems. I went for a hike. What happened? I was in New Hampshire, a state that you and I both love, um, at Mount Monadnock. And I was hiking in the top section of Monadnock, is this slab granite that you just have to trust your footing on? There’s nothing to hold on to. And I remember really for the first time, in a long time trusting my body to get me up something. And I had got to the top and I remember kind of having this epiphanies moment of, Oh my gosh, this body that, you know, I felt so alienated from or had so many challenges and issues with, for so long, this, this got me up here and this enabled me to have this beautiful view and feel so good.

Perry Cohen:

And I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if other and trans folks could have that experience and actually feeling embodied and enjoy it. And I think for many of us often, the outdoors is talked about is a place where you go to, you know, go beyond your comfort zone or stretch yourself or learn new things. And I think when you’re already feeling uncomfortable because of your identity or your body or some part of you, it can be really hard to say on top of that discomfort that I already feel, I’m going to try to stretch myself by climbing a huge mountain or trying something physically new and in the outdoors, in a new setting, that’s super challenging. And I think one of the things we try to do is remove that barrier of saying you feel unsafe because of your identity. And if we can create a community and a group that goes out there, then maybe that provides a base that allows people to then say, okay, now I feel like I could try a new sport or new activity or do something that I’ve never done before, because I have this, this safe grounding with this community.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I asked Perry if he had any stories that exemplified this:

Perry Cohen:

Biggest stories that come out of our trips usually happen after. And they usually much more about an emotional sense of fitting in or feeling, feeling like they belong someplace versus a physical one. So I think my favorite example is one person who came on one of our trips. He came on a ski trip, so it was a week long trip. And he, at the end of the trip, he pulled me aside and he said, Perry, I, I just really want to thank you for showing me what the world of trans people can look like and what community can look like. He said, I’m, I’ve been, you know, I’ve transitioned four years ago and I’m only out to three people in my life. And I always felt ashamed of my identity and my body. And I thought there was no way that I could be trans and be employed and be happy and have friends and relationships.

Perry Cohen:

And he said in being on this trip and seeing eight other trans people, each of whom embodied their transness in such a different way or their queerness in such a different way. And he said, it really empowered me and inspired me. And I want to go home and come out and share more of myself with my friends. So he hosted his own gender reveal party upon returning from the chip in which he invited all of his friends over. And there’s a t-shirt that says, this is what trans looks like. And he wore it underneath the flannel and like midway through the party, he ripped off the flannel and just showed his friends, his t-shirt. And they, you know, they all hugged him and told him they loved him and supported him. And he called me after he said, I never could have done that. Had I not been on a trip?

Perry Cohen:

And to me, that is being on the trip. And that experience is wonderful, but, but a story like that, which shows somebody’s life changing because of the people they met and the experience they have. I mean, that to me is what we’re all about. Oh, that’s beautiful. Yeah. And he wound up becoming an instructor, which is really cool too. So he, that is kind of the ultimate dream of us. As somebody comes on our trip, they fall in love with it so much. And they’re like, I just want to help more and more people have this experience.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Speaking of volunteers, The Venture Out Project leads longer trips in different parts of the US each year and hosts day events in 24 states. They rely on many volunteers to make all this possible. I asked Perry if he could tell me a little more about the role volunteers play in the work.

Perry Cohen:

They’re so important in, I guess it was 2018, someone called and said, when are you going to lead a hike in Ohio? And I was like, Oh gosh, probably never. But that is not the answer I ever want to give to a person. So what can we do to address that? And so we created the pilot volunteer program. We brought 25 people into Vermont. We trained them on wilderness. First aid brought in a racial justice educator, a black woman to talk to us about racial justice and the outdoors, which was super cool. And then we spent half a day on how to actually plan a trip and then a full day on the social emotional stuff that happens on the trips. If you have a conflict, if somebody is struggling, you know, someone gets mispronounced, how, how do we address that stuff? And so we did that because I, the volunteers are absolutely critical.

Perry Cohen:

I mean, they already know their local community. They already know their local trail system. And often I think one of the biggest barriers to access for folks to joining our trips is, is just the fear of kind of the anxiety of meeting a new person or being in a group alone for the first time. And I think our volunteers are the very first person they meet, who represents venture out. So to me, that’s a hugely important, right? If, if your first experience with us is bad, you’re probably never coming back. But if your first experience is great and this volunteer just made you feel seen and special and important, then chances are good. You’ll you’ll want to come back. And so we invest a lot of time and effort into our volunteers because we think they’re super important. And so that first year it was a pilot year. Last year, obviously we didn’t run any volunteers. And this year we’ve got a whole new program slated. We weren’t able to run our training, but we’ve got much more volunteer recognition, volunteer support. And, um, I’m just really excited to be able to help them be really incredible ambassadors, not just for venture out, but for the community in general, because I think, you know, they can be role models to folks

Gale Straub:

And the volunteers are exclusively queer.

Perry Cohen:

Yes. Although it was interesting. I just had a parent of a trans kid asked me if they could be a volunteer, which I’ll sudden was like, Oh, what a cool idea. If we could create groups or parents or siblings or chosen family of trans folks and maybe create another community and supportive network.

Gale Straub – Narration:

As we talked about before the break, when we reach out, whether as a volunteer for an organization or in other aspects of our lives, it’s important not to take over in the process. I asked Perry how they work with their volunteers to make sure they’re always keeping the participants’ needs in mind.

Perry Cohen:

Our job as instructors is to ensure everyone’s safety. And to me, that’s physical and emotional safety. And so we scout the trap, we set all the, you know, all the logistics and all that stuff. And we plan the routes. And then once we’re actually on the trail, our job is completely to be listening and observing what’s going on and making sure that everyone who wants to be involved in the conversation is if our conversation starts to turn in a direction where someone seems to feel uncomfortable, not always redirecting depending on the age, but sometimes saying like, Hey, let’s, let’s just check in and see how folks are doing on this. So we try not to over-engineer it, but also to really be kind of reading people’s body language and being the place. And we always start every chip saying, Hey, if anything ever feels not okay to you, you, you come to us and we absolutely will address it.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Part of this conversation around reaching out is about recognizing privilege and using that privilege to invite others in, share, and build access. I asked Perry what impacts he’s seen when those who hold more privilege invite others in.

Perry Cohen:

I feel like a lot more people are getting it a lot more. And, you know, when we first started, we would get a lot of comments. Like why do you need a special group? Um, you know, maybe I should start a group for white, straight guys with beer to drink beer, to go in the outdoors. And you know, we’d have to be like, well, that’s pretty much every group that already exists, but I think more and more we’re seeing folks recognize how hard it can be to be in the outdoors. If you do feel marginalized in some way, because of your identity. And so I, I’ve been really excited by the outreach we’ve seen from brands and also from individuals, you know, just writing us and saying like, Hey, my climbing gym would love to do a climbing night. We think it’d be better if we partnered with you.

Perry Cohen:

So recognizing that while they could do this on their own to partner with an organization that is trying to do this work and that to help amplify us. To me, that’s a really great way that we’re seeing that, you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do some film work in the outdoors and to see filmmakers and producers saying like, okay, we want to make sure that there’s trans folks on both sides of the camera or on both sides of the creative. So I think from the outdoor retailer side, there’s been a lot of recognition and a lot of work that’s being done. And the reason I say that is because I think for better or for worse, that really does drive so much of what happens in the outdoors, who we see in advertisements, who we see, you know, on Instagram and stuff makes us think like, Oh, I could do that. Cause I see someone like me doing it. And then I think the, the result of that is, yeah, there’s just more people have so many diverse identities visibly outside. I think folks were always outside before, but maybe just not as visible in their identities for those of us who it’s not always so obvious by looking at us what our identity is, but I think it feels safer to be like a loud and proud outdoors than it used to.

Gale Straub – Narration:

I asked Perry if he had any advice for those wanting to help make the outdoors a more welcoming place,

Perry Cohen:

Educate yourself. Don’t not say something for fear of saying the wrong thing. Like make yourself a little bit vulnerable too, and say, I’m going to try this. And if I make a mistake, I’m going to apologize and fix it and move on. You know, I think the other thing is reach out to groups or BIPOC groups, or, you know, there’s a group called disabled hikers, like folks who are already doing the work and don’t feel like you have to do it on your own, but actually supporting or amplifying some of these groups who are doing it for their own communities. I think that’s a really great way to be supportive.

Gale Straub:

Hmm. Is there anything else that comes to mind for you or anything that you’d like to elaborate on?

Perry Cohen:

Yeah, I think I would love kind of close with a story that I heard because I think it helps to answer the question so much of like, why do you need this group? So there was a through hiker who happened to be transgender and they thru hiked the AT and they said, you know, the whole time I was thru hiking, I was the trans backpacker or the trans hiker. And they said, and then I came on a venture out trip. And for the first time in my life, I was just a backpacker. And they’re like, and that’s all I’ve wanted to be for so long and to not have that modifier before me. And I think to me, that’s, that’s a huge thing. I think for, for folks of all kinds of diverse backgrounds is like, maybe it’s not always about our identity first. Maybe like just see us as a hiker or just see us as a backpacker and not some modifier or super live that happens to make us special, but that we should be just as entitled to having access to the space and being in the space and doing these activities. And that there’s nothing special about wanting to do that.

Gale Straub:

Oh, thank you for sharing that.

Gale Straub – Narration:

While COVID greatly impacted last year’s programming for the Venture Out Project, everyone at the organization is looking forward to when full lineups become a reality again. Learn more, donate if you can, and find other ways to give back at ventureoutproject.com.

Alecia McConnell:

Our volunteers are really the heart and soul of our program operations.

Gale Straub – Narration:

This is Alecia McConnell, Program Director at Outdoors for All, the leader of adaptive recreation in the Puget Sound region. Headquartered in Seattle, Outdoors for All provides much of its recreation programs in the Seattle Metro area but with over 100 community partners in the region, Outdoors for All delivers programs to eight counties throughout Washington state. I spoke with both Alecia and Thera Zylstra, Outdoors for All’s Associate Executive Director, to find out more about the organization––its purpose and the group’s impact. Here’s Thera.

Thera Zylstra:

Outdoors for all. We enrich the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities, through adaptive, outdoor recreation. And through this, we foster meaningful fun for people of all abilities and help them develop independence and confidence, thrill, a variety of recreation activities.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Alecia expanded upon exactly who they serve and how outdoors for all can support those participants

Alecia McConnell:

Outdoors for all supports anyone over the age of five, all the way up through older adults with just about any type of disability. So we are able to support individuals with physical disabilities and that could be acquired or congenital folks with chronic illness and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We really try and be as inclusive as we possibly can. And we recognize some people just need access to adaptive equipment. Some people just need access to inclusive coaching. And then there’s a broad spectrum within both of those areas that we’re able to support. So we really do try and be as welcoming and as accommodating as we can.

Gale Straub:

What are some of the ways that you’re achieving those goals in 2021? What are some of the programs that outdoors for all excited about?

Alecia McConnell:

We’re still rebuilding programs or redesigning programs around COVID-19 protocols following the state and national public health guidelines. But some of our more exciting programs are we just wrapped up our 20, 21 winter season. We supported about 102 individuals with disabilities in our ski snowboard, cross country ski and snowshoeing programs from January all the way through last weekend, which was just absolutely amazing to return to some form of normalcy in our program delivery. And now we’re planning for spring and summer with our major programming being around day camps, we support individuals over the age of seven to 21, getting active in sports and activities like kayaking, rock climbing, cycling. It’s going to look markedly different from our typical summer day camp programming, just as a result of the pandemic, but we are really excited to offer a modified schedule of day camps and help support the community and families with some respite for young kiddos, with disabilities and families. In particular,

Gale Straub – Narration:

I asked Thera and Alecia if they had any stories of individuals who have been impacted by Outdoors for All. A mother named Carol came to mind. Here’s Thera:

Thera Zylstra:

A number of years ago, Carol was pregnant with her second child and because of sepsis became a bilateral amputee and also lost her vision. And she was a mother of two small children at the time. And throughout her life growing up, Carol was an avid snowboarder and it took, you know, a couple of years of rehabilitation for Carol to become comfortable in her prosthetics, but was able to find out doors for all and become active in our ski programs. She first started on a sit ski, but after two years in the program, Carol was able to begin snowboarding. And I believe that was through the support of Alecia in that, in that ski program, to which Carol, you know, was so grateful to have the opportunity to get back to a sport that she was really active and really loved and was able to deal with her has been in children.

Alecia McConnell:

Yeah, it just was so impressive that after a couple of seasons, she was back up on her feet snowboarding again. And I think the most empowering part of that whole experience for me, just watching it from the sidelines was knowing that ultimate goal was to be a snowboard mom and D to get to support her two kids out on snow. And now they get to do that as a family and they are a ski family. Thanks to Carol’s determination

Gale Straub – Narration:

Programs like the one Carol participated in lean heavily on volunteer work.

Alecia McConnell:

Volunteers are really the heart and soul of our program operations. Our staff recruit bout 900 volunteers a year and provide training to them so that the volunteers are really doing the direct support, the one-on-one coaching, the small group management and a little bit of equipment management. So it’s really, our volunteers are the ones directly working with participants. And so without them, our community would not exist. And of the 900 volunteers annually that we work with about 700 of them are active within programs with about 200 other individuals being active with fundraising events and other like equipment management, sort of behind the scenes role. So our volunteers really are the heart and soul of outdoors for all.

Gale Straub:

Wow. What a powerful network.

Alecia McConnell:

For me, Working with the volunteers has been one of the greatest experiences because we do right away, get to connect with folks from all different backgrounds in this greater Seattle area. We have individuals that work for major corporations within our region, all the way down to folks that are just learning their sports or just moving to Seattle. And this is their way of meeting new people. So it’s a wide wide gamut of individuals and backgrounds within our various activities that, that come to outdoors for all. But at the core of it, they all just want to help and make the outdoors more accessible.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Like I did with other organizations I asked how Outdoors for All makes sure to center the participant.

Alecia McConnell:

Right away. Our coaching for our volunteers is talk to your participant, get to know them, work with their families to understand what makes them tick. What makes them passionate, why are they coming to outdoors role and really putting those needs first? And then we tailor the coaching experience for whatever the sport or activity might be. We are able to tailor those specific interests to the activity or program, um, as well as then matching equipment. And even just some of the environments in which we work in a typical year of when we are working within a ski lodge. So actually going into the building, let’s say at the summit at Snoqualmie, and on a busy day, we could have upwards of a hundred people inside of our tiny little office space, trying to get bags settled, walking in from out of the parking lot, trying to get on ski boots or get into a sit ski and it can be incredibly overwhelming. So if a volunteer is sensing that in their participants, that it’s too much of an anxious or busy environment, our volunteers are trained to right away, get the student out on snow, get them out of that environment and really work with their specific needs. And that’s just one area where our volunteers are really attuned to what does the participant need to be successful? And how are we tailoring the, to match what they need.

Gale Straub – Narration:

When I asked Thera and Alecia what impacts they’ve seen when those with resources share their tangible or intangible wealth they pointed to the fact that many participants come back again and again, and that the greatest marketing tool is the word of mouth from the participants who’ve benefited from participating with Outdoors for All. They also mentioned that there is a reciprocity, when volunteering, that in addition to making an impact the volunteers themselves are very impacted––many return to volunteer, year after year!

Gale Straub:

Do you have any advice for folks who are listening, who are passionate about making the outdoors a more welcoming place and want to put some of that passion into action this year?

Alecia McConnell:

Yes. I would say no matter your position within your community or how you identify or who you represent, I would say get active in a committee, look up your local parks and rec and learn how your local parks and rec department is advocating for inclusive and accessible spaces. Get outside yourself. I think for me, that has been the most empowering throughout my career in adaptive and inclusive recreation has been just my personal time in the outdoors and feeling an evolution within my own time and how I’m choosing to engage in the, in the outdoors. So I would say that same thing to others. Like if you’re not active outside yourself, how can you advocate for it for others?

Gale Straub:

Hm. Thank you, Thera. How about you?

Thera Zylstra:

Yeah, I, I, you know, before joining the outdoors for all team, I never knew that adaptive recreation was a thing. And I think after getting involved in learning more about the incredible network of adaptive recreation programs across the country, there are so many, you know, Hiddn little gems throughout different communities. And so I just encourage people to look and see what’s available and where else they can get involved because there’s a lot of organizations doing really incredible work.

Gale Straub – Narration:

And the daily practice of educating ourselves is so important too. Especially if you’re able-bodied, it can be so eyeopening to start to look around at the world a little more critically, slow down. Now this how activities and the places we go are, or are not accessible and asked to stabled folks how they can best be supported outdoors for all pointed out that they, as an organization are continually working to make things more accessible within the organization proof again and again, that we are all continuing to learn,

Thera Zylstra:

Well. So, you know, more internally have tried to make a more concerted effort to make sure that all of the different functionalities of the organization are accessible. You know, we would have a big fundraising event at one of the ski areas, and that was more of an expert level ski slope. Therefore it wasn’t very accessible to people that we serve. And so we had to really look inward about what we are saying when we are hosting events at places that aren’t as welcoming for our main demographic. And so doing a better job just internally too, as to how that’s reflective upon our constituents.

Alecia McConnell:

I really liked that example, Thera, and I think it just highlights that we as an organization, we’re still learning, even though we’ve been working in this space since 1979, so 41 plus years now, uh, we are absolutely still learning and trying to keep up with industry standards.

Alecia McConnell:

So we’re, we have a number of staff members that sit on committees around the greater Puget sound region and a few national level groups that meet on a regular basis just to make sure that we are keeping up with the different conversations and keeping up with the needs of the community. Most notably, I would say we’re doing a pretty big shift right now, or a pretty big focus on some of the language representation that we have in our marketing materials. We actually just met this morning as a program team to identify what marketing materials need to be upgraded into different languages, that we are promoting inclusion in different ways within the Seattle community as well.

Gale Straub:

I love that always learning. That’s such a good reminder, cause I feel like, you know, someone listening in might at times feel intimidated and that might stop them from wanting to volunteer or challenge themselves to, to push, uh, and, and do more to make the outdoors a more inclusive place. So knowing that people who are at these organizations are also learning, it just makes it, you know, more, more welcoming to get involved.

Alecia McConnell:

We have ways to provide education and training to not only our staff, but also our volunteers and participants as well to really open up the conversation and help people to feel comfortable in and really at the end of the day and welcomed at outdoors for all.

Gale Straub – Narration:

Outdoors For All, like all the organizations mentioned here, is fundraising and has big goals, including renovating their headquarters to become an adaptive recreation center in the heart of Seattle. Learn more about all that they do at OutdoorsForAll.org.

We covered a lot in this episode! And a constant theme that I heard throughout the conversations is that we all have something to give when it comes to making the outdoors more inclusive and accessible.  But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can reach out and support existing organizations. After a challenging year, the four organizations I spoke with are ramping up their programming and creating more opportunities for folks to come together outdoors. If you have the means or ability, now’s a great time to start to explore volunteering, sharing your outdoor knowledge, and inviting new friends on the trail with you. And throughout – remember to listen and learn from mistakes so we can all move forward together.

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