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10,000 Outdoor Experiences: WTA's Training Model Grows from Community Needs

Through our Outdoor Leadership Training program, we're supporting community leaders as they nurture the connection between youth and the outdoors.

In the fall of 2019, our Outdoor Leadership Training (OLT) program surpassed 10,000 supported outdoor experiences. These experiences, led by the 331 graduates of our outdoor leadership training workshops, have been engaging young people with the outdoors and inspiring the next generation of hikers, outdoor leaders and public land stewards since 2014.

While participating in an OLT-supported trip, many youth have an opportunity to experience something completely new. For some, that might be strapping on a pair of snowshoes or lighting their first camp stove. For others, that might be as simple as walking a trail. Those experiences can stick with them for a lifetime.

"Upon seeing the Milky Way for the first time one Tacoma resident said, 'I'm going to cry. This is the best night of my life.' They were all changed by the trip." — Jim Cubbage, Wild Grief

But, making that kind of experience a reality is a whole lot of hard work.

Teachers, educators, youth group leaders — they all have a lot on their plate. And, while we all know the positive impact an outdoor experience can have on youth, sometimes those community leaders need a little help to make it happen.

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Students from the Waskowitz Environmental Leadership School (WELS) embark on a spring trip to Sucia Island, outfitted with gear from WTA's gear lending library. Photo by Tim Hall.

Starting Something New

“I think it would be a great experience to take my students hiking, but I don’t know where to start.”

“The young people we work with just don’t have the appropriate gear to enjoy the outdoors.”

“Our youth group would love to volunteer with WTA, but we don’t have transportation to get to the trailhead.”

Back in 2014, those are just a few of the comments we had been hearing from community organizations and schools interested in leading outdoor youth trips. While we wanted to help in any way we could — we realized that at the time, we were also lacking in the resources to do so. 

The conversations got us thinking, though: Was there a way that WTA could move into a position to provide the tools for youth groups hoping to get outside? Could we identify the major barriers preventing youth from getting outdoors, and create a program focused on breaking them down?

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All of our OLT workshops are held outside, in the field. Photo by Shane Welch.

Krista Dooley, WTA's community partnerships and leadership development director, decided that yes, we could. And she made it her mission to see just how WTA could play a role in bringing more outdoor youth experiences to fruition.

Over the course of many months, Krista made calls across the country — searching near and far for organizations attempting to do similar work. She held dozens of meetings and focus groups with local educators, youth serving organizations and government groups to dig even deeper into the needs of their programs.

Her research uncovered a pretty strong pattern. A set of four common barriers came up time and time again when trying to lead outdoor experiences with youth: a lack of training, gear, funding and support.

Joining a NETWORK

In the midst of her research — Krista stumbled upon the work of Kyle MacDonald, founder and former executive director at Bay Area Wilderness Training based out of Oakland. At the time, Kyle was hoping to shift his focus towards creating a new network of youth programs — a network that fell right in line with the hopes and dreams of WTA's emerging OLT program. The network, known as the Outdoors Empowered Network or OEN, is a collective of programs nationwide who aim to connect all youth to the outdoors by breaking down barriers to access.

It's safe to say our interest was piqued — and we readily signed on as one of the foremost members of the burgeoning network.

Through our involvement with OEN, not only did we acquire a wealth of resources for setting up our own OLT program — but we've also been able to share our experience of building a outdoor leadership program with similar organizations across the country, serving as a model program for getting even more youth connected to the outdoors.

Growing a Program

To effectively serve the communities we wanted to reach, we knew that we needed to find ways to address each of the four major barriers we uncovered in our research. They became paramount in the creation of our Outdoor Leadership Training program, guiding our work into four interconnected sections: workshops on a variety of trip-leading topics, access to a free gear lending library, mini-grants to cover associated trip costs and ongoing community support to foster connections and crowd source solutions to common problems.

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Our OLT workshop participants take home plenty of resources after their hands-on training in the field. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.


Workshops & the multiplier effect

Perhaps the most important part of a successful outdoor adventure is the incredible leaders who make it happen.

Many teachers and youth leaders expressed a lack of training opportunities that centered around planning and leading safe and fun outdoor trips. When we began developing the idea of holding outdoor trainings, we knew we wanted to focus on building these skills and include plenty of hands-on experience in the field. We also knew that we wanted a training model that focused on training the leaders — rather than taking the youth out ourselves.

"As a leader, I felt very empowered to recognize not just safety concerns but the need to have the learning environment be fun and comfortable. I felt very supported by WTA in making those choices." — Claudia Augustine, Girl Scout Troop Leader

By empowering leaders in their own communities, not only can they better serve the unique needs of their students, but they can continue to build on the personal relationships and sense of belonging that were built during their outdoor outing. By engaging with leaders, we are also able to leverage the multiplier effect and help create thousands more youth experiences in the outdoors than we ever could have alone.

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Jean, WTA's Outdoor Leadership Training administration coordinator, demonstrates how to use a water filter while on an OLT backpacking workshop. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.

With this model in mind — we built out a curriculum focused on adults leaders and featuring four distinct workshop topics: hiking, camping, backpacking and snowshoeing. Our workshops are offered all year long, and are held at various public lands throughout Western Washington.

This past year, we were able to welcome our first cohort of volunteer instructors to the team — and we can’t wait to bring their enthusiasm and experience to our future trainings. With the help of our volunteer leaders, we hope to expand our availability of workshops and extend our reach to an ever greater number of organizations within the coming years. 


Gear Lending Library: Free is the Key

The next stop to a successful outdoor outing? Access to all of the necessary gear to make participants feel comfortable, safe and itching for more adventure.

The upfront cost of acquiring enough gear for a day outside is a massive hurdle for many youth serving organizations. Plus, for groups who only take a handful of trips a year, if often doesn’t make sense to store 20+ sleeping bags when space is already at a premium.

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Participants in the Wilderness Inner-City Leadership Development (WILD) Program learn from United States Forest Service Rangers while borrowing snowshoes from the WTA gear lending library. Photo by Britt Lê.

To provide these organizations with the gear that they need and reach as many youth as possible, we knew that a gear lending library was the answer — and it would need to be completely free. Through the help of the Outdoors Empowered Network, we were able to secure enough gear to open up our first gear lending library in Seattle in 2013. What started as a small collection of backpacks, jackets and boots has grown to include everything from snowshoes to complete backpacking kits.

In 2021, we will be expanding the reach of our library and communities who can access it by opening a second lending library location in south Puget Sound.

"Students used the snowshoes to access areas at Paradise in order to complete a snow science activity and also to hike in snow. Students walked away understanding from hands on experience how important the snow pack is for our region." — Amy Wilson, Mount Rainier Institute

Gaining access to the library is simple. After completing one OLT workshop and gear orientation with WTA, all leaders will have the opportunity to check out any gear they need for their youth participants. Rain, shine (or snow), our gear is available all year long.



Even with access to gear, there are many additional costs associated with planning an outdoor outing that leaders need to address before they can make it happen. Transportation, campsite fees, food and permits are just a few of the most common ones. To help minimize the funding barrier, OLT workshop participants are eligible to apply for mini-grants of up to $500 in funding assistance that can be used on any costs associated with their trip.

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A depiction of the average level of fun had on all OLT supported trips. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman.


A Community of Support

There are an incredible number of youth-serving organizations in Washington state, and an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience associated with them. We heard from many youth leaders that forming connections with leaders in similar positions was a deeply valuable resource for their work. 

Through our centralized workshops, we provide a space for networking and idea-sharing between leaders across the region — we hope to break down the silos that can make us feel alone in this work. Beyond the workshops they attend, we support leaders through an online forum to share trip ideas, ask questions, learn about upcoming events and stay connected with other leaders working with youth. 

10,000 Outdoor Experiences (And Counting)

"The positive impact of this trip was deeply felt by all. Youth reported that they had found newfound strength in themselves, connected deeply with others in new and unexpected ways, and felt more closely connected with nature." Rae Parks, Young Women Empowered

"Thank you for getting me the gear so I felt prepared for my trip" — 5th grade student

"All of the students wanted to go snowshoeing again after the trip. They had so much fun especially during a snowball fight between teachers and students. The most positive impact was the relationships being formed between teachers and students outside the classroom." — Talia Hirsch, Y.E.T.I

10,000 outdoor experiences later, the comments we've been receiving from community organizations and schools have changed dramatically.

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A group of youth hikers with the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center exploring the waterfalls of North Cascades National Park. Photo courtesy Mercer Slough.

On any given weekend of the year, we can have up to 11 groups checking out gear for their outdoor adventures. From snowshoeing at Gold Creek Pond and maintaining trails at Mount Rainier National Park to giving local STEM lessons and cleaning up debris at Ruby Beach, our workshop graduates are out exploring Washington's wild places and making lasting memories with their youth groups. When the shelves are empty, we know we're succeeding.

With the help of our members and supporters, our Outdoor Leadership Program has been able to grow bolder and brighter year after year. In addition, we cannot give enough thanks to the educators and community leaders who are doing the work to make the experiences happen. We are so proud of the work being done across the state to connect youth with the outdoors — and are happy to be a support system for these experiences.

To support the work of our Outdoor Leadership program and help make the new gear library and next 10,000 outdoor experiences possible, please consider donating here.