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When you first walk into Outdoor Outreach’s office on Market Street, cheerful green turf greets you, carpeting the space entirely and dissolving the room…more field than four walls.
“We try to bring as much of the outdoors as we can to us,” Ben McCue, Outdoor Outreach’s executive director said.
But Ben isn’t just speaking for his coworkers at the office. It’s what he and Outdoor Outreach volunteers, staff and supporters aim to do every day: share outdoor experiences with youth all across San Diego. In turn, the nonprofit organization transforms lives by opening up possibilities, showing young adults all they can do physically, mentally and emotionally to pave the way for success and growth.
Through mountain biking, surfing, rock climbing, snowboarding, hiking and more, young adults across the county – with the majority coming from low-income communities – are introduced to natural, open spaces and to the opportunities these experiences provide.
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Since 1999, Outdoor Outreach has served nearly 8,000 youth through its four core youth development programs. Last year, the organization formed the Outdoor Voices Youth Leadership Initiative to complement its training program for young adults hoping to give back as instructors and mentors.
Gaby Jasso is going through the leadership training now while completing classes at a local community college.
Gaby has been a member of Outdoor Outreach for nearly seven years. She joined in middle school, discovering the after-school program that could provide her with positive outdoor experiences she had always tried to take part in herself, but without the resources to do so.
“I always wanted to be out there, even if it was just in my own backyard,” Gaby said. “I’d jump over fences to see new things. I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the outdoors on my own, but with this program, I couldn’t miss it.”
Gaby left the program briefly when she went into high school. Outdoor Outreach wasn’t offered at her school and the culture there was one of violence and fear. Her mother relocated the family to put Gaby in an environment where she was supported and happy.
And Outdoor Outreach was back in her life.
Now Gaby hopes to help others in similar situations as an instructor for the organization.
“It is so important to have these experiences,” she said. “This is a chance for others to do something they may not have been able to do before.”
Being a part of Outdoor Voices’ Youth Leadership Initiative is a big part of that. The program gives young adults the opportunity to meet with change-makers at the state level and beyond, to speak with elected officials about the barriers some communities face in accessing the outdoors.
These youth leaders get the opportunity to attend 25 advocacy trainings and events each year; for many, it is their first time talking to elected officials and advocating for their communities.
Ben says youth leaders go through year-long training to become instructors and receive training on public speaking. They also learn how to address audiences while delivering a message clearly.
Additionally, they work on “soft skills” like creating emotionally safe spaces for Outdoor Outreach participants as well as technical skills to be able to coach participants on outdoor activities.
“My hope is that these leaders will inspire others, they’ll build connections as positive role models,” Ben said. “Our teens have a lot of potential, we’re just here to help show them what they can do and what they can be.”
Once these young adults experience the outdoors, and feel the thrill of reaching the top of a mountain, climbing an intimidating bluff to take in the vast openness and clear skies, skimming the surface of salty ocean water or powdery snow atop boards…those experiences are unforgettable.
These moments are life-changing, emotionally thrilling and important. For so many youth in San Diego, it is a tangible declaration: yes I can do this, I can do anything because I just did it; supported by friends, mentors and an environment of positivity.
“It opened my eyes to the possibilities,” said Nancy Tran, a current board member and former youth member of Outdoor Outreach. “I am really proud to have been a part of it, to have such a positive experience, to make friends with good people and have a positive network. It’s a safe space, and truly a home away from home.”
A home bringing youth together, housed under San Diego skies and powered by transformative experiences of the outdoors.
SDG&E’s Environmental Champions initiative has opened the outdoors to more than 256 underserved youth from 2013 – 2015 in partnership with Outdoor Outreach and San Diego’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS). As a sponsor of Outdoor Outreach’s Lead the Way and Bridge to Beach events, SDG&E also helps further Outdoor Outreach’s mission to connect youth to the transformative power of the outdoors.