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Explore Austin teaches kids life lessons through outdoor adventures, mentorship

Teen Luis Cervantes leads the mountain biking pack down a trail on a recent October morning at Walnut Creek Park. Explore Austin is a six-year program that starts the summer after sixth grade.

On a recent Saturday a group of ninth-grade girls canoeing on Lady Bird Lake raced each other back to the dock. 

 "I was going so fast," ninth-grader Alondra Parra says. "My arms are sore. It was fun."

On this day, ninth-grader Jolena Martinez was reminded, "it's really hard to do canoeing."

"With canoeing you have to communicate with someone," Alondra says.

The girls group is one of 20 groups of Explore Austin participants. Across town, a group of ninth-grade boys were mountain biking at Walnut Creek Park. They learned about safety and then raced through the woods on a two-hour ride.

Through a series of Saturday Challenges and annual trips, Explore Austin teaches middle school and high school kids how to climb mountains, canoe, backpack and mountain bike. 

The program begins the summer after sixth grade and is a six-year commitment. Their first event is typically a camping trip to Colorado Bend State Park. 

That's where each group forms the bond that will last six years.

William Lopez, left, gets his helmet adjusted by his mentor Ryan Nelson. The mentors stay with the same group of teens for at least three years with the possibility of an additional three years.

Finding the kids

Explore Austin reaches kids mainly around the Texas 130 toll road communities in East Austin, Elgin and Manor and Del Valle. Participants learn about the program from friends, siblings, their schools and their parents. To apply for Explore Austin, which is free for participants, the kids have to qualify for free or reduced lunch at school.

"My mom put me in it," Jolena says. "She wants me out of the house." 

Explore Austin relies on donations and grants for the $1,500 it costs per participant each year.

The program now serves 300 kids and has plans to add another two groups next summer. Each group can have up to 15 kids, and alongside them are up to five adult mentors. 

Teens enjoy learning the basics of mountain biking in the Explore Austin program that matches teens to mentors for outdoor activities.

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The mentors provide leadership and social emotional learning guidance. Explore Austin staff members facilitate the outdoor activities and are trained in those.

Each Saturday, the groups meet at a set location and make their lunches with food provided by Explore Austin before heading out on that day's adventure. 

If they weren't participating in the Explore Austin groups, the participants say they might be sleeping in. Going outside probably wouldn't happen. Most of them didn't have experience with outdoor activities before they joined Explore Austin.

"We're providing access they just wouldn't have," says Kathleen Schneeman, the CEO of Explore Austin. 

Eduardo Gomez, left, followed by Elias Escalante, right, try out their bikes as the teens learn the basics of mountain biking on a recent October morning as part of the Explore Austin program, which matches teens to mentors for outdoor activities.

'We can try hard things'

Each summer, a different trip is taken that focuses on a skill they have learned. Last summer, the now ninth-grade girls went mountain climbing in Colorado. They learned about perseverance and working as a team as well as how to deal with friend dynamics in their tent.

"At the first mountain I was going to climb, I couldn't really climb, but I kept challenging myself," Alondra says. And she did it. 

One of the things they have learned from their mentors is "I can accomplish anything if I look forward to it," ninth-grader Sofia Galvan says. 

The mentors, Jolena says, "are like other people we can talk to." 

"They're personable, they are funny, they are really outgoing, they are understanding," Sofia says. 

"The mentors are like second parents," Alondra says. 

Outdoor activities help create trust, says mentor Kaitlyn Garbe, 28, who works at Indeed and found Explore Austin by Googling "outdoor volunteer experience." She and the other mentors with the ninth grade girls have been with them for three years. At the end of this year, they'll have the option to sign up for an additional three-year commitment with the same girls.

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A helmeted William Lopez, left, waits for the others to get ready before their ride. Once a month the group gets together on a Saturday. Each summer, the teens also go on a different adventure trip.

The strength of the program is the longevity, says mentor Claudia Harding, 41, who does voiceover work professionally. 

One of the things they tell the girls all the time is "we can try hard things," Garbe says. "Trying it can be fun." 

Even the mentors have to tell themselves that. Rock climbing "is not in my comfort zone," Harding says,  

Yet, as mentors, they put on the brave face. Getting on the rock climbing wall for Harding means "showing them that I'm scared, too, but we can do hard things." 

"We are convincing ourselves as well as the girls," says mentor Tatem Gordon, 28, who is a teacher. 

All the mentors go through a background check and are interviewed for compatibility. Explore Austin wants to make sure that they are in it for the right reasons and not just to go camping or canoeing. Like most organizations, finding the right mentors remains a challenge.

Mentors receive training and a structured curriculum outlines the program. 

William Lopez tests out his mountain bike before the Explore Austin group starts their ride.

Bringing kids outside

The program didn't always have that structure. When Todd Hanna, Jamie Matthews and Rusty Stein started Explore Austin in 2006, Matthews says, "we naively thought we would pass on a bunch of wisdom to a bunch of teenagers." 

The curriculum, Matthews says, was "we're going to go into the great outdoors and there's going to be no cellphones and videogames. It was going to be really hard and really fun." 

"It's exceeded our expectations on both parts," Stein says. 

What they quickly learned was that the outdoor activities were not as hard as wrangling teenagers. "Our kids had a lot of energy," Matthews says. They also weren't expecting the social dynamics between the kids. 

"You've got a bunch of guys with half-cooked brains and hormones and extra energy on top of that," Matthews says. "It's lively." 

They started with 15 sixth-grade boys, whom they recruited from KIPP charter schools. They were all kids whose family incomes qualified them for free or reduced lunch. 

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"The goal was to give back what others had afforded us," Hanna says. 

All three founders had had people in their lives who took them hunting and fishing and sent them to summer camp.

"Just because of the ZIP code we grew up in, we had those opportunities. Stepping up to provide those opportunities was fairly common," Hanna says. "If we went across I-35, those opportunities weren't as common, but the need and desire was there."

Their first trip was to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Most of the kids had never been on a plane before or seen snow or an American bison.

From that first trip, they realized they had something special. They just needed to put a structure around it.Halfway through that trip, the came up with the framework. Everything would be about being action oriented, courageous both morally and physically, being an excellent teammate and having strong communication skills.  Later, they also created a social contract and developed a set curriculum and schedule.

Elias Escalante puts on a helmet as mentor Ryan Nelson hands out helmets before the Explore Austin ride.

Expanding skills

Each year, Saturday events focus on building a particular skill and ends in a trip that focuses on that skill such as canoeing, mountain biking, mountain climbing and backpacking. 

Within a few years, the founders had been asked repeatedly about starting a girls' program, and they felt like the foundation of the boys' program was strong enough to do so.

Adding girls just made the program better, Hanna says, because it allowed it to grow in both who it was reaching and who was getting involved. 

Now about 300 kids are served every year with 100 mentors volunteering. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to pause some activities, but resumed with this summer's trips.

All three of the founders remain connected to the organization in a peripheral way. Just like that the mentors can serve only two three-year terms, the founders knew they needed to make room for others to lead. 

"We had at least a little bit of self awareness that if this thing is dependent on us well into the future, it's probably not going to make that much of an impact," Matthews says. 

Stein remembers thinking after his time as a mentor had ended, "I don't want to take somebody else's place," he says. "Somebody else needs to experience this." 

Staying involved but not running the program also ensured that the funding wouldn't be dependent on people they knew or were peripherally in their circle. 

"We've got to widen that circle," Hanna says.

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Lasting impact

Their focus and the focus of Explore Austin has always been about measuring success not by number of kids served by by the impact they have made, by the transformational experiences they provide. 

Alexandra Castillo's son Greg Garcia went all the way through the program and Castillo is now a board member. They heard about it through his school Austin Achieve. 

"We live in an apartment complex," she says. "We don't have a backyard to go out and play. We don't live in a safe area where I could have him go out and play around the apartment building. I thought this was a great opportunity." 

She says she never could have afforded regular outdoor outings in Austin or the trips he was able to take. 

Once her son was enrolled, he began teaching her what she learned. Families can check out Explore Austin's equipment to do their own outdoor adventures. Castillo and her son now have done some camping and hunting as a family. Once they got lost in the woods, but Greg knew what to do and reminded her not to panic. 

The program, she says, "helped him become independent ... he matured a lot in the program just by being away from me and being able to make his own decisions." 

It also gave him a strong male role model in a mentor. His mentor would call her son just to talk to him about how his week was going, how his grades were going. 

"He'd be excited about it," she says. "Having that friendship is good for him." 

Castillo would love to be a mentor herself, but she knows she physically wouldn't be able to do it. "As a board member, it's my way of giving back," she says. 

Greg Garcia, who graduated from the program this summer, plans to join the Navy next year and eventually become a software engineer. Some past participants have gone on to become outdoor specialists and mentors. 

While the goal is not for everyone to become an outdoor specialist, Explore Austin wants "everyone to leave with a deep respect for nature and understand how restorative it is," Schneeman says. 

The program combines three things at its core: leadership, mentorship and outdoor adventure. 

"The magic is the in the people," Hanna says. "It's the conversation that happens between explorers and mentors around campfires on the (climbing) belays, in a canoe. The outdoors is just the classroom. We have to be super intentional to set the environment for that magic to happen." 

What the mentors realize is that when the kids stick it out from that first very trip to being able trust one another in a canoe or on ropes, they repeat the lessons back to their mentors. 

"You put stuff out there and hope something sticks," Harding says. "When it does ..."

"It's working," Gordon says. 

The group gets ready for their two-hour ride at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park in north Austin. Explore Austin divides groups by grades and gender and has a different emphasis each year.

Explore Austin

To find out more about Explore Austin or to become a mentor, go to exploreaustin.org.