New programs are making camps more accessible and affordable

Hannah Sjovold credits the Blue Sky Fund Outdoor Leadership Institute for helping her “develop who I am and who I want to be.”

Blue Sky Fund brings youth from all over Richmond, Va. together through outdoor adventure and service. Rising ninth through twelfth graders spend a few days learning wilderness survival skills like how to set up a tent and light a stove before embarking on a week-long trip to the Grayson Highlands and the summit of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia.

Although she had previously hiked with her dad, Sjovold said she had never done a multi-day trip this long and strenuous with a group of people she had never met before.

“The first day, definitely, we were all a bit timid,” Sjovold said. “But it’s incredible being out backpacking together. You meet someone in a way that you can never know them again. By the end of it, we really created our own family. I keep in touch with all of the participants to this day. We still hang out together sometimes. Such a community is built.”

The students learn to navigate each other’s strengths and weaknesses while out on the trail, taking on different roles each day.

“We hiked basically the entire day,” Sjovold said. “Some people wanted to hike faster, and others couldn’t keep up with that pace. Bonding with each other through that and getting through the tough parts. Some people got blisters on their feet and that’s not a fun experience. There was one day where it rained the entire day. That’s hard on the morale but getting through that together is incredible.”

But the program doesn’t end after those two weeks over the summer. The boys’ and girls’ crews come together to meet throughout the school year, volunteering one Saturday a month in urban gardens, parks, and homeless shelters around Richmond.

“I am definitely more aware of my surroundings and the impact that I have on the environment,” said participant Malik Ahmad. “I’ve become more conscious of what I can do to help my environment and to help my community and my earth.”

Although Ahmad had participated in Blue Sky’s afterschool program through the local Boys and Girls Club, he wasn’t as sure about signing up for the backpacking trip. At the encouragement of his grandmother, he applied for the institute and went on the trip the summer before he started high school.

“It pushed me to try harder and made sure I was being honest with myself and honest with how I felt,” Ahmad said. “I’m typically a pretty nonchalant, non-argumentative person, or I was at the time. I was always hesitant to share my opinions or say how I felt at the moment. Then I realized that if I wanted my needs to be met, I needed to make them alert to myself, my counselors, and my team.”

Building the TEAM

Bly Sky Fund’s Outdoor Leadership Institute students are nominated by a teacher, mentor, or alumni of the program and then interview with the program directors. For the students selected, payment is based on a sliding scale to give every student the opportunity to participate.

Starting in the summer of 2019, Blue Sky will accept up to 40 students for four summer sessions.

“We try to get a diverse range of students from different backgrounds because when we’re talking about race, leadership, and unity in our communities, it’s really important for them to learn some new perspectives,” said Program Manager Dustin Parks.

The students build the foundation to have those honest conversations through outdoor adventure and teamwork.

“They really just form this unit,” Parks said. “The students work together to set the pace of the day, to figure out where we’re going, how many miles we’re hiking. It’s just a really cool time to see all of these students who four days ago, didn’t even know each other, didn’t really know how to read a map, and they’re navigating the wilderness together… Our students are not only walking away feeling supported by a group of people that are really different from them, but they are also learning a new skill that they can then use in other walks of life.”

Once students finish the year long program, culminating in a graduation in June, they are invited to join alumni trips the following summers to continue building that self-confidence and sense of accomplishment.

With these trips, the students have more control over where they go, learning how to plan, budget, and execute a trip of their own design. Blue Sky provides them with the funds, transportation, and facilitators to make it happen.

After his hesitation about the initial trip, Ahmad was all in on the alumni trip. The group biked from Pittsburgh, Penn., to Washington, D.C. along the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage.

“I think the impact of our programming really creates a safe place for students to come and explore the outdoors,” Parks said. “And explore themselves and kind of learn who they are and learn what they’re passionate about away from the norm of school and sports and stuff like that.”

Similarly, Sjovold found she still wanted to be involved with Blue Sky but could not make it on the alumni trip. During the summer of 2018, the program managers invited her to work as a guide in training.

“It was an opportunity to see it from the other side,” she said. “I wasn’t really a participant in the way that the other girls were participants… I helped to plan some of the in-town days and the lessons we wanted them to understand. It was a really interesting experience, very fulfilling.”

The support from the program leaders extends beyond the institute itself.

“They came to one of my cross country meets and cheered me on,” Sjovold said. “It really makes you feel loved and a part of something bigger than yourself.”

Follow Through

The Outdoor Leadership Institute is only one part of Blue Sky Fund’s mission to engage more students through the outdoors.

The organization partners with eight Richmond public elementary schools, working with second through fifth graders on experience-based science instruction. They lead after school adventure clubs at ten locations throughout the city for middle schoolers.

“We see a lot of our students who are in our elementary school program in our middle school program,” Parks said. “And we’re starting to see our elementary schoolers making it to our high school program. They know we’re consistent, they know we’re going to show up, they know that we care… We’re basically able to see students from second grade to twelfth grade and support them along the way.”

Over the summer, Blue Sky offers a six-week camp to expand on the programming they offer during the school year.

A full day of camp gives them more time to take the students to places outside of Richmond, including an overnight camping trip each week.

The summer program costs $10 per week but the program works with each individual family so that cost is not a barrier. With all Blue Sky’s programs, most of the funding comes through donations, grants, and private partnerships to reach more children through the outdoors.

Brittany Bailey started working with Blue Sky Fund as an intern in 2013 before coming on full time in 2017. As the adventure program manager, she works with students across all grades and heads up the summer program.

Each week, the campers learn various outdoors skills such as paddling, rock climbing, Leave No Trace principles, and first aid, venturing out to George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park.

“We would love for them to be able to take this and then go to these places with their families,” Bailey said. “Somewhere like Shenandoah, where it’s a paved road that they can get to, it’s really well marked, it’s something that could be really accessible for some of our students to go outside of our program.”

Getting the Experience

For college students, summer is a time for learning the skills needed for after graduation. Whether it’s through a job, an internship, summer classes, or study abroad, it’s an opportunity to explore.

photo courtesy of The Greening Youth Foundation

The Greening Youth Foundation started as an environmental education program, partnering with public schools in Gwinnett County, Ga. to teach students about nature and wellness.

As their mission evolved and grew, the foundation began partnering with the National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and several outdoor retailers to offer internships for diverse and underrepresented students among the next generation of environmental leaders.

Eboni Preston, the director of programs, said these partnerships present an opportunity for young adults to gain experience in the field and build professional networks. They place around 500 students in a variety of positions every year.

“I tell them all the time I am living vicariously through them,” she said. “They’re working on everything from hydrologist assistants to interpretation, graphic design, social media, historic preservation, and architecture.”

Students apply through the foundation which then works with the partner organizations to match students with positions and parks.

“We are engaging an audience that hasn’t had a lot of opportunities, especially when it comes to this space,” Preston said. “So that screening is we’re talking with them to see what their interests are, who is going to be a good fit. That is really big when it comes to these programs. Like you say that you like nature but are you okay sleeping in a tent? Are you really scared of bugs? Having some conversations so that we can make sure that what the young people enter into will help them be successful there.”

Once students start their internship, the foundation is there to provide support throughout the experience. In addition to summer internships for undergraduate students, there also longer internships available for graduate students.

“We’re uprooting a lot of these young people, sometimes it is for six months to a year,” Preston said. “So, making sure they have somewhere to stay, being an advocate for them, making sure they’re getting a stipend that will help them with whatever expenses they may have is really important for us…It’s really about making sure these young people are successful and getting to the root of different types of issues they may be having or issues that are within the agency.”

At the end of every internship, Greening Youth asks the students to submit a multimedia reflection piece about their experience.

“For the folks that go outside a lot or have been fortunate enough to visit [national] parks, it’s just something special,” Preston said. “People always talk about their first park experience. It’s breathtaking and it’s life changing. Folks in that space working for one of these agencies, they definitely take growing opportunities from that.”

While studying biology at Spelman College, Cristha Edwards worked with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for two years as a conservation and biology intern through the foundation. During the summer, she worked full time in the molecular, tissue culture, and GIS mapping labs.

“Because you spend two years there, you really got to take time and see a project through from start to finish,” Edwards said. “The skills that I learned there actually helped me in the writing of my first publication.”

Now, Edwards is working with the foundation and the Forest Service on a faith-based forestry program at Proctor Creek while she pursues her Master of Divinity at Emory University.

“Even if I don’t end up staying in environmental justice or anything like that, just the skills that you learn, you can take it into any field,” she said. “I think professional development is one of the largest things Greening Youth Foundation has to offer… So not only lab skills, but how to communicate with people in an effective manner that is also professional, the importance of punctuality, and networking.”

Through it all, Edwards said the team at Greening Youth Foundation has been there for her.

“In your 20s, you’re finishing college and it’s a time of transition,” she said. “They’re really good at working with you throughout that time.”

For the youngest and the smallest

Free Forest School is not a summer program as the weekly meet ups happen year-round. And it’s not a camp. But it’s a chance for children to spend some unstructured time outside, engaging their sense of wonder at a very young age. It caters to families with children from newborns to six year olds.

Forests schools are not a new phenomenon. This style of learning encourages people of all ages to interact with the world around them, promoting independence and creativity.

But unlike many outdoor programs for young kids, Free Forest School is exactly that. Free.

“We were looking for things to do outdoors with our family here in Baltimore and I just found a lot of the outdoor programs for families with young children were just so expensive,” said Atiya Wells.

Wells is a pediatric nurse in Maryland and mother of two. After learning about Free Forest School, she went through the process of starting a chapter when she learned there was not one near her family.

“It’s all a child led environment,” she said. “The kids pick which way we go on the hike. They pick where we stop. They pick mostly everything we do out there.”

The group meets once a week at the same local park, averaging around 12 families. They typically walk between a quarter mile and half mile before setting up base camp. The children are then given at least an hour of free play before coming together for snacks and story time.

“Prior to Free Forest School, as a parent with two small children and as a working mom, I was always trying to find something for my kids to do,” Wells said. “After starting Free Forest School, going and observing, I’m thinking I really don’t need to provide them with anything. Everything that they need is already out here. That helped me get them outside, even in our backyard more… It’s really made me more of a relaxed kind of parent. I don’t have to be on edge all the time.”

Since starting the Baltimore chapter over a year ago, Wells said her five-year-old daughter has become more independent when it comes to play.

“She has never really been one to play by herself,” she said. “It was always, ‘Mommy, can you play with me? Can we do this? Can we do that?’ Now she’s started playing by herself a lot more. She’s more comfortable being outside by herself in our backyard.”

Her two-year-old son, who started the program at an earlier age, is more confident on his feet, climbing hills and rocks without any hesitation.

Getting involved with Free Forest School also inspired Wells to enroll in the state master naturalist program through the local extension office.

“This has also sparked more of an interest in me to learn more about nature from the questions that the children were asking me,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about being outside, honestly. Growing up as an African American and living in the city, nature was not a part of our everyday, even once a month. It’s not something that we did at all. I was under the impression that everything that was green was poison ivy. There were bears everywhere and snakes and everything was going to get you… I was like I really need to know more about what’s out here for the safety of people. From there I realized there’s really nothing to be afraid of.”

The class has helped her identify plants, wildflowers, and rocks with her daughter when they are at their weekly meetups.

Wells also sits on the board of directors to help guide the organization at the national level and promote the accessibility of the program.

“I thought once I started Free Forest School, it’s a free program, there will be more black people and more people of color out there,” she said. “And that was not the response. It really made me do a deeper dive of what’s really going on here. That has led me down the history of institutional racism and why a lot of people of color are not comfortable outdoors and what needs to happen in order for that to be more of a comfort for them.”

One of the things facilitators like about Free Forest School is the flexibility it offers depending on location. With dozens of chapters across the country and a handful internationally, it looks a little different in each place.

SarahRuth Owens heads up the Southern Blue Ridge chapter with groups meeting in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The group she facilitates rotates locations after 12 weeks, giving the children time to learn an area but also experience new places.

Owens plans to homeschool her five, three, and two-year-old so Free Forest School gives them a chance to interact with other children, especially her oldest.

“I’ve really seen him take a leadership role in a way I haven’t seen him do,” she said. “He is one of the oldest children. He’ll be like, ‘I know the trail!’ when new kids come. ‘Come with me!’ He’ll race ahead. In other environments, he can be very cautious and not as confident.”

Owens said her group likes water, so the parents consider how deep and swift the water is when scouting locations.

“There are times I can hear him, but I can’t visually see him anymore,” she said. “I know where he is. He knows that area really well. With that in mind, when we go scout, we’re actually scouting for safety so that when we bring groups of children, we don’t really have to be on guard.”

That idea of self-directed play is what drew Matt Jarman and Janice Adelman to the program.

“We are both research psychologists and a few years ago we were looking into how to raise a child that is connected with nature in today’s kind of disconnected way of living,” Jarman said. “There’s more and more research showing the benefits of being in nature for everyone, kids and adults. So, I think they’re doing a great job making this an accessible opportunity for people everywhere.”

The parents of a four-year-old and a four-month-old started a chapter in Rockbridge County, Va. a few months ago. Although the group is still small, they already know this is something they want to continue growing for other families in the area.

“This is what we’ve been needing and what’s been lacking,” Adelman said. “Just that aspect of community building has been really impressive to me, to get people to come together… The organization is really great about putting those ideals and those values first and offering a platform of support to do that.”

For decades, campers of all ages have flocked to summer camps around the Blue Ridge Mountains for adventure. Set in the heart of Appalachia, these summer camps offer outdoor experiences for kids and teenagers of all ages.

Camp Hidden Meadows

Bartow, W. Va.

Surround by the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, Camp Hidden Meadows offers adventure for campers ages 6-16. Spend your summer learning outdoor living skills, farm to table cooking, mountain biking, and more. Older campers have an opportunity to venture further beyond the base camp on one of the Earth Expeditions. Spend a week backpacking to the top of West Virginia’s highest peak, whitewater raft down the New River Gorge, and climb the rocks at Seneca Falls.

Green River Preserve

Cedar Mountain, N.C.

With over 3,400 acres to explore, Green River Preserve has plenty of space to explore, create, and learn. During the Mentor Hike, campers explore the many ecosystems of the preserve led by naturalists. These hikes encourage campers to slow down and connect with the natural world. Rising high schoolers through rising college freshmen are invited to return for one of the graduate expeditions in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Outer Banks.

Smoky Mountain Adventure Camp

Cosby, Tenn.

What better place to spend the summer than in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Campers build relationships with each other, staff members, and the environment through hiking, camping, and paddling. Explore well known areas like Max Patch and Pigeon River, spend a night in the Lost Sea Caverns, and take a turn on the climbing wall. Each session ends with a trip to Ober Gatlinburg for some summertime ice skating.