Meet Courtney, Monica, Karla and Rue. They are very different women, but they share a powerful belief that taking people into wild places can change the world. Each of them learned to find her own strength under the open sky—and each is working to share that power with her community.
National Director, Boys and Girls Outdoor Leadership Development (BOLD and GOLD) at the YMCA.
Photo: John Aber
Courtney did not set out to work at the YMCA. In fact, her work with kids in the outdoors started as a summer job after art school, when she decided to take a couple of months off after graduation. “I wanted to do something fun before getting a grownup job,” she recounts. “So I spent a summer leading outdoor trips for teenagers. One year turned to many, and I’ve never looked back.” There’s a pause, and you can hear the smile in her voice as she tells the story. “It’s not exactly what I expected to do with a degree in weaving.”
As national director for the BOLD and GOLD programs at the YMCA, Courtney coordinates outdoor adventures and wilderness experiences for diverse groups of girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 18. The program started in Seattle, and now organizes trips for 1,500 kids each year in more than 25 cities around the United States. The young people go outdoors in small groups to hike, climb, backpack, swim and explore, while learning leadership skills and how to face challenges with courage. The effects are powerful: 98% of participants report that they feel better about themselves after completing a BOLD or GOLD program.
The demographics of the programs’ trips vary tremendously. In Minnesota, the YMCA has strong connections with the Hmong community. In North Carolina there are more Africa-American participants. In San Francisco there’s a higher percentage of Latino families. “We get to bring together kids from incredibly different backgrounds,” says Courtney. “And if we’re going to help young people succeed, it’s important to teach all families that spending time outside is an integral part of education.”
Founder, Black Girls Do Bike
Photo: Chancelor Humphrey of @keeppittsburghdope
As a mother of four in her mid-thirties, Monica wanted to get outside more—so she bought a bike. She loves hiking, fishing and photography, she says, “But cycling is the thing that grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.”
Cycling rapidly became a favorite pastime for Monica and her family. It’s low-impact, good exercise and a great way to convince her kids to put down their electronics. She quickly discovered a problem in the cycling community, though. She almost never saw another black woman on a bike. “I wanted to see more people who look like me get outdoors.” So rather than gripe about the problem, she started a movement: Black Girls Do Bike.
The grassroots organization aims to support, engage, educate and inspire women of color who share a passion for cycling to take on leadership roles in their communities. It’s a comfortable network for female cyclists to meet each other, organize rides and share skills. On its website, the organization’s goals are clear: “We rejoice when women choose cycling as a tool for alternative transportation, self-care and ultimately empowerment.” The women of BlackGirlsDoBike.com share positive images of badass black women on their bikes. They encourage each other. And, above all, they ride.
Founder, 52 Hike Challenge
Photo: Kristina Frost
Karla did not grow up hiking—in fact, she describes her younger years as downright rocky. At 17 she got pregnant, and at 18 she was married with a newborn baby. “I had a lot of shame about being a teen mom,” she says. “But at a certain point, I decided not to let that define me.” After a decade in an unhappy marriage, she got divorced, started a business and met Phil—who helped her get outside.
“My first hike wasn’t easy,” she remembers. “But it gave me strength. I realized: If I tell myself that I can’t do something when I’m outdoors, how am I limiting myself in my everyday life? I left my self-doubt on the side of the trail, and I never want to look back.”
Feeling inspired by the experience, Karla and Phil committed to hiking once a week, or 52 times each year. Originally they were using social media to document their journey and encourage them to be accountable to their goals, but they quickly found that other people around the country wanted to challenge themselves to get outside more frequently, too. “People connected to our story,” says Karla. “If we can do it, then there’s hope for everyone else.”
Now the 52 Hike Challenge is a global movement, and growing. Thousands of people around the world are opting outside with hopes of changing their lives in a positive way. Karla is bringing on ambassadors, helping grassroots teams coordinate events in their cities, and doing everything she can to inspire people to get outside. Her motto? “If you have any problem, just go for a walk—and I promise you’ll feel better.”
Today Karla lives in Southern California with Phil and her teenage son, along with a dachshund named Sir Louis Vuitton. Her son doesn’t often hike with them, but he loves to explore the trails near their home on his mountain bike. “He’ll do fifty miles a week,” says Karla. “And as long as he’s getting outside, I’m happy.”
Founder/CEO, Outdoor Afro
Photo: Outdoor Afro
Rue is one of those people who has done it all. In one past life, she worked as a data and risk analyst at Morgan Stanley. In another, she opened a hobby-and-game shop in the Bay Area. She’s good with technology, sharp as a whip and devoted to her community. But when she found herself divorced with three children and an unfinished college education, she pressed the reset button.
“A friend asked what I would do if time and money were no issue,” she recalls. “And I opened my mouth and my life fell out: I wanted to start a website that helps reconnect African-Americans with the outdoors.”
So she used her technological prowess to develop algorithms to build a blog that would reach an audience who hadn’t been addressed before: black women between the ages of 35 and 44. “I have been part of lots of different organizations—hiking groups, biking meet-ups—and they often felt competitive. Those groups were not respectful of my limited experiences and my unique comfort level. They assumed competency without assessing different levels of ability and engagement. I wanted black women to have a different option.”
Thanks to Outdoor Afro, women now have that different option. Leadership ambassadors take people outside, holding space for each participant’s personal journey with hospitality and compassion. They hike, they talk, they teach each other, they breathe. “Nature is a powerful teacher,” shares Rue. “It taught me that even if I don’t know where I’m coming from or where I’m going, I have everything I need to move forward, one step at a time.”