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Explore Austin Provides Youth Mentorship Through Wilderness Experiences

The Packit Gourmet team is so honored to partner with Explore Austin this year, providing backcountry meals for the 21 groups adventuring throughout TX and beyond this Summer!

Explore Austin is looking to break down the barriers youth face in getting involved with outdoor adventure. Through mentoring, leadership opportunities, and outdoor excursions, the Texas-based nonprofit empowers youth to reach their full potential.

Hannah Bruno is the Communications and Marketing manager at Explore Austin, and one of the several inspiring members of this nonprofit team that is helping further the mission to provide outdoor access, mentorship and life-changing wilderness experiences for youth in ATX.

We sat down with Hannah in an effort to learn a bit more about Explore Austin and their approach to youth mentoring in the outdoors!

 

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Can you start by giving us the backstory on how Explore Austin came to be?

Explore Austin was formed from a deep understanding of how nature and outdoor high adventure can help youth develop transferable skills, like teamwork, communication, and adaptability. 

Founded in 2006, Explore Austin uses mentoring, leadership, and outdoor adventure to empower youth to reach their full potential. Through a leadership based outdoor adventure curriculum coupled with social-emotional learning components and long-term mentoring, Explore Austin’s goal is to help develop comprehensive wellbeing in our community’s youth.

Explore Austin matches 6th grade “Explorers” with adult mentors and start them on a six-year journey. Each year, the Explorers tackle a new outdoor activity, starting with Backpacking and working all the way up to mountaineering. Throughout the year, the teams hone their skills through our Saturday Challenges, which culminates in week-long Summer Wilderness Trip that increases in difficulty and distance from home each year.

 

 

What makes Explore Austin’s approach to youth mentoring unique? What makes “outdoor mentorship” different? 

Our method for building trusting relationships between mentors and Explorers is simple: give it time! What sets our program apart is the length of time Mentors commit to their Explorers. Explorers begin in sixth grade and their mentors stay with them through the graduation of high school and beyond. Over the course of the six-year program, each Explorer spends more than 1,300 hours with their Mentors and fellow Explore teammates. 

Outdoor adventure is full of risky, messy, and ambiguous circumstances. We take youth from urban areas and ask them to carry a 40+ pound pack through a 95 degree Arkansas forest, canoe 50 miles, traverse a steep and slippery trail on a mountain bike, and more. This is scary stuff for many of them! Because our program emphasizes relationship building and trust, the Explorers feel empowered to participate in our challenging curriculum without fear of failure or judgement. Creating a safe and supportive environment cannot be faked or rushed.

 

 

How do you connect youth with mentors? Can you describe the youth selection process and mentorship training?

Explore Austin was founded to bridge the gap between historically excluded demographics and outdoor adventures.

Study after study shows that the inequity in nature is, unfortunately, alive and well. Individuals from lower socioeconomic and racial minority communities have less accessibility to nature and the spaces. In Austin, spending to cultivate green spaces is in the 84th percentile nationally, but the city only scores in the 40th percentile on accessibility to these spaces. Meaning, not all of Austin’s citizens have access to the parks and green spaces in the city. We specifically recruit youth from the areas of the city that have been historically excluded from outdoor adventure.

What I love about our mentor recruitment process is that many of the young professionals we bring in have little to no experience in the outdoors. Of course, they have an interest in being in nature and enjoy a challenge, but many of them are learning new skills right alongside the Explorers. Creating this co-learning environment makes the adults seem more accessible to our Explorers, helping to build the trust needed for the Mentors to have deeper and more complex conversations with their Explorers.

 

As a family and team, we’ve always placed value on sharing meals together, and have so many special memories over the years of sharing food together in the wilderness. For the Mentors and Explorers, are there any memorable stories of transformation that demonstrate the power of creating and holding space for youth in the outdoors?

How long do you have? There are literally hundreds of memorable stories! I just went on my first Summer Wilderness Trip a couple of weeks ago. I tagged along with a group of 8th grade girls  who were backpacking in Arkansas. Earlier in this interview, when I mentioned 95 degree forests, that was us! I won’t lie; It was a tough trip. As the first trip the girls have taken with the program, they were experiencing some serious culture shock. We struggled to make our mileage each day, sometimes taking 6+ hours to move 4 miles. But, at the end of the day, once we set up camp and sat together chowing down on our Dottie’s Chicken and Dumpling and The Big Easy Gumbo, many of the girls expressed feelings of deep achievement at conquering their aching feet and sore muscles to finish the journey.

At Explore, we often refer to our program as “Type 2 Fun,” especially for the Explorers. “Type 2 Fun” is categorized as an experience that’s challenging in the midst of it, but incredibly fun in retrospect. The collective challenge of backpacking for a week or rappelling for the first time down a 30-foot cliff helps Explorers forge strong bonds with each other, their mentors and trip leaders, and the environment. The shared challenge, unique experiences, and empowering atmosphere (and all of the jokes and memories) help too!

 

 

What do the Explorers think of the food? Were there any fan favorites amongst the Explorers?

On my recent trip, the Explorers were surprised by how good the Packit Gourmet meals were. At first, we could definitely see that they were apprehensive about tasting something that was totally dehydrated only minutes before, but our Trip Leaders (wilderness experts who guide the trips) raved about the meals and told horror stories about other, less delicious, backpacking food that they’ve had to eat in the past. Once the girls saw our experts eat and genuinely enjoy the food, they were sold.

There’s something about a warm and delicious meal that boosts morale – especially after a  backpacking lunch of pepperoni and days-old cheese.

But, what I really liked about the Packit Gourmet meals is that the girls could take responsibility for preparing them each night. From collecting water, to boiling it, to following the instructions for each meal, it was another chance for them to be autonomous and try something new.  

The mentors and Trip Leaders loved the Chicken and Dumplings, but the Trailside Bean and Cheese burrito was the clear favorite among the girls. It was literally traded like currency. What can I say, us Texans love our Mexican food. 

 

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We are thrilled to help feed the Explore Austin Explorers and Mentors! How can our community of hikers, paddlers, and travelers also help support the Explore Austin mission?

If members of the Packit community are interested in youth development and outdoor adventure, they can follow along on our adventures through our Instagram! And, of course, we always appreciate financial support through tax-deductible donations.

As an Austin-based brand, Packit Gourmet is such a crucial partner for Explore to have. It’s so important for Explore to partner with businesses in the community, especially outdoor-focused businesses, as we strive to build outdoor equity. On behalf of our 300 Explorers and 100 mentors, thank you to Packit Gourmet for helping us change lives – one adventure at a time.

 

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