Columbia Belay Grantee: Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor Program

Getting kids outdoors in a fun, educational setting is a goal many of us share.

But it doesn’t happen with a magic wand and three wishes. In fact, outdoor education is expensive. Not only do you need the equipment, but you also want expert instruction by people who understand kids.

Five years ago our friends at the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance asked if we could help support nonprofit organizations around the U.S. devoted to furthering outdoor education and conservation in their neighborhood. Of course, we jumped at the chance to help ensure the places we hike, run, fish, paddle, and camp are well cared for and loved by others. To date, Columbia has provided over $500,000 in funding to more than 100 nonprofit organizations across the country through the Columbia/Grassroots Belay Grant Program.

The Belay Grant Program is unique in the fact it relies on community support for success. Each year, specialty outdoor retailers across the country nominate local nonprofit organizations that help get kids outside or conserve natural spaces. A nonprofit organization is only eligible for a Belay Grant if they have the full support of their local outdoor retail partner. This approach helps form long-term partnerships that will have a lasting effect on the community beyond initial grant funding. We’re proud to support this collaborative effort that contributes to communities and the environment in meaningful ways.

The Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor Program, run by outdoor-veteran Todd Vogel, is one of the 2017 recipients of our Belay Grant. We tracked Todd down in his home in California’s Eastern Sierra to find out more about the program.

What exactly is the Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor Program?

The ESYO is a free five-day outdoor program for kids from the Eastern Sierra, ages 12 to 17. The camping-based program includes a day of team building activities, a day of rock climbing, and a four-day backpacking trip, all led by professional outdoor educators who volunteer their time.

How did it get started?

I’ve worked in outdoor education and mountain guiding for nearly 30 years. In Outdoor Education most of my clients are from private schools. While these types of programs are a great opportunity for students with parents who can afford private schools, it’s been frustrating to try and bring these kinds of offerings to my community and public schools. So in 2015, through Eastside Sports, I became aware of the Columbia Belay Grant and decided to try starting what became the ESYO.

How many kids do you work with annually? How many have been through the program?

The program has been in operation the past three years. So far we’ve had about 25 kids in each program, so 75 total, though several of those are repeats. It’s worth noting that as part of the recruiting process I give talks at the local schools. Through these, over 1,000 kids have been exposed to ESYO.

What is the typical experience for each kid?

There are usually two types of participants in this program: those who sign up with some trepidation and those who already have some outdoor skills and are more comfortable outdoors. Most are in the former category. So they show up a bit uncomfortable. We do some wacky ice breakers and that seems to loosen things up. We do a starting circle, where they introduce themselves in a fun way. We break into small groups (which will become the backpacking groups) and issue any required gear.

The next day is the climbing day and they all seem to enjoy that. There’s a range of enthusiasm but usually everyone belays, climbs, and rappels at least once, some many more times than that. One of my favorite quotes, from the first year, is a kid who said, “When I rock climbed for the first time I felt like I could do anything”.

I think the three-day (moving forward it is four days) backpacking trip is a real high point for them. I see so much change in the students and the group as a whole before to after the trip–in general they come out much more bonded and engaged.

Where do you take your students? What do they do?

The program takes place in the Eastern Sierra, above Bishop. Our basecamp elevation is about 8,000 feet; the climbing site at South Lake is 9,700 feet. The backpacking trips have used a variety of itineraries depending on the winter (lingering snow) or the abilities of the groups. Typically it’s a trip with a four-mile hike to a camp, a day hike, and then a hike out. Subsequent years we’ll be moving camp on the second day, so they have to go through the camp site selection and packing/unpacking processes more than one time.

What skill set will a student finish the program with?

We expect participants to:

  • Have a great time learning new skills in the outdoors.
  • Form new, lasting friendships as they interact with other people from outside their usual sphere.
  • Improve their sense of team and community: learn and practice characteristics of good “Expedition Behavior”–putting other’s needs above your own.
  • Improve their sense of self esteem by participating and succeeding in carefully and purposely chosen outdoor challenges, facilitated by outdoor professionals.
  • Understand the basics of rock climbing and the climbing safety system.
  • Learn basic outdoor skills such as what to bring on a hike, packing a pack, map reading, care of self, group, equipment, and the environment; campsite selection, water purification, backcountry cooking, and sanitation.
  • Be able to articulate and perform the seven principles of Leave No Trace ethics.
  • Have a basic understanding of public lands and Wilderness.

Do most kids continue to pursue outdoor activities after the program ends?

It would be interesting to find out. I believe that many do. I’ve seen kids from the program out on day hikes with their families, but otherwise have no specific data. I guess a data point is that we do get repeaters on the program.

Does the program have goals?

Our program mission statement is as follows: The Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoors 2016 program will continue the work we began in 2015 with the inaugural program. In 2016 we aim to again provide a thoughtful, innovative, and high-quality outdoor education curriculum to at least 25 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 from the Eastern Sierra area in California. Using local professional outdoor instructors (who will be volunteers) and qualified volunteers from the community, youth participants will learn the basics of rock climbing, backpacking, and outdoor living over the course of a four-and-a-half-day, four-night experience. The program will be at no cost to the participants.

Using these activities, we will cultivate personal and group development, leadership skills, and environmental awareness within the youth of our area and for the benefit of the community.

A further goal is to have community involvement in the program as community volunteers help administer and manage the program.

Our aim is to make this a program that becomes ongoing and self-supporting through the help of community volunteers, donations, and grant funding.

How can a family/student get involved?

All they need to do is apply. The application window is typically February 1 to June 1 or when the program fills up. Families can assist with transportation.

Does the program have any future plans you can talk about?

We’re changing the backpacking trip to be a four day rather than three day hike.

I believe the program could be scaled up–multiple sessions could be offered, for instance, and kids from outside the area could be recruited. There are opportunities, but they would take more funding as transportation would be an issue. Also, while I’ve been lucky getting colleagues from outdoor education to volunteer a week of their time I don’t think that would be a sustainable model were the program to occur more frequently or for multiple sessions.

How does Columbia tie in? 

The Columbia Belay Grant has been foundational in helping build the framework for the program. Other than what Eastside Sports donates we have no other source of funding for the program. The grant pays for the food and supplies, camping, and all other expenses of the program. We run it on a very tight budget!