Morning is still asserting itself—early light eking through dusty windows, aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in from the kitchen—as eight strangers settle into mismatched couches and chairs on an unseasonably warm Thursday in October.
The group gives off a mix of excitement, anxiety, and grogginess, some having driven from as far as New Hampshire to get here. “Here” is AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center, a rustic camp nestled in a grove of towering white pines and red oaks not far from the Delaware River. Although Mohican—located in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, straddling the Pennsylvania–New Jersey border (see “Best of the Delaware River,”)—is open to the public, this group means business.
At the stroke of 8 a.m., Sebastien Venuat gets started. The manager of AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program for the New York–New Jersey region and an instructor of the training for which this group has assembled, Venuat shares his expectations clearly but with a trademark gleam in his eye. “Starting now, everyone shall forfeit the use of cell phones and electronic devices unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he says, locking eyes with each participant in turn. “I want you all in for this program—no distractions.” The attendees nod in unison, accepting his contract.
Along with a volunteer, Venuat is here to instruct this collection of teachers and youth workers in leading teens on backpacking trips. The workshop, known within AMC as an Outdoor Leadership Training, is key to the organization’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Once the attendees have successfully completed the training, they’ll become YOP members, meaning they’ll have access to AMC resources, from staff advice to lodging discounts at AMC destinations to free use of vast amounts of gear.
YOP has used this train-and-support model since its inception in 1968. Arising from the Civil Rights movement, the program originally focused on under-resourced youth and youth workers in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. In its first year, AMC trained three adults who led 63 kids on outdoor trips. In the auspicious half-century since, YOP has trained more than 5,000 leaders—teachers and youth workers, like those at Mohican—who in turn have led more than 294,000 youth on outdoor trips. With support from grant funding and generous donors, YOP reached more than 37,000 youth in 2016 and aims to increase that number to 50,000 youth annually by 2020.
It’s an ambitious goal, but YOP’s director, Jessica Parsons, is confident it’s attainable. “Successful growth happens through broadening our base with expanded outreach and retention of our members,” she says. “The more active members we have representing different locations, experience levels, and backgrounds, the more youth get outdoors.”
The first step in getting more kids outdoors is training the adults who will take them there—safely. Venuat, who has instructed 36 of these immersion workshops since joining AMC’s staff in 2010, finds that no matter how strong someone’s leadership experience is in his or her own line of work, many people struggle to apply that skill set in the outdoors. “The Outdoor Leadership Training is all about learning new skills and putting them to use,” Venuat says. “It takes some participants a while to adapt to the physical effort, the group dynamics, and even to little things, such as not showering for four days or shutting off their phones.”
For some participants, the training is the first time they’ll light a camp stove, sleep in a tent, or lace up a pair of hiking boots. The thought of mastering those unfamiliar tasks and then organizing and leading others—teenagers, no less—to do the same, often far from home, is daunting. While John McCrann, Venuat’s volunteer co-instructor for the weekend and a high school math teacher in New York, agrees the backpacking skills are critical and complex, he believes they’re secondary to even more difficult work the participants have already done on their own.
“The hardest part of conducting outdoor trips is what y’all are doing: making connections with your youth in their schools, families, and communities,” McCrann tells the group in his native North Carolina drawl. “The easy part is what we’re about to teach you.”
For Bernel Harrison, a police officer assigned to New Jersey’s Plainfield High School, his biggest challenge isn’t conquering self-doubt or finding kids to take on backpacking trips. Instead, it’s a hurdle all too familiar to most of his fellow trainees: funding. Perpetual budget constraints make it tough for schools and youth groups to outfit teens with specialized—and costly—outdoor equipment. And Harrison knows what it means not to have money for gear. As a volunteer middle-school track coach, he has paid for his athletes’ running shoes out of his own pocket.
That’s another place YOP comes in. YOP members can borrow everything they need for their groups—from hiking boots and rain pants to stoves, sleeping bags, snowshoes, and backpacks—free. Beyond staffing two program offices (New York and a brand-new Boston facility located at a major public-transit hub), YOP maintains 10 gear rooms, known as “libraries,” in four states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. When planning a trip, YOP members can consult with staff on choosing the right shoes and the right trails on which to wear them.
It’s this support Harrison is looking for. This summer he’s helping run a three-week leadership program for middle schoolers at Plainfield’s Queen City Mentoring Academy, directed by police officers. “By partnering with YOP, the academy will be able to offer overnight trips to outdoor destinations, including Mohican,” he says. “It’s a new element the kids will be super excited about.” While leadership is at the core of the academy’s curriculum, Harrison, who was introduced to YOP by a teacher in his school, believes the outdoors adds a whole extra level of growth and development. “Bringing youth to an unfamiliar environment that’s out of their comfort zone allows them to let their guard down and to learn more about their inner strength,” he says.
That’s another lesson he knows firsthand. Harrison recalls how, as a kid, he gained a deeper appreciation for the outdoors on trips with the local YMCA. “I never looked at the world the same again after spending time in the forest,” the 43-year-old says. “It seemed much larger to me.”
Once Venuat and McCrann wrap up the morning’s orientation, they move the training outdoors, into the warm autumn air. By lunch, the group has learned emergency medical protocol, how to set up a tent and a tarp, how to tie knots, and how to model proper trip behavior. Harrison is no stranger to the latter. He spends a lot of his time talking to kids, encouraging them to choose other paths than gangs. As for his knot-tying skills, Harrison admits his trucker’s hitch has a ways to go. But that’s why he signed up for the training: to learn by doing.
“Trust me,” Venuat confirms. “It’s better to learn about a piece of gear now instead of [in the middle of] your trip.”
The group spends the rest of the afternoon preparing for its first night in the field, at a tent site half a mile from the YOP gear library—close enough to ease into the unfamiliar but far enough to feel remote. After learning how to pack a backpack properly, the participants don their heavy loads with a few grunts and groans. Before setting off, Venuat suggests a roll call to ensure all are accounted for. “How about this?” Harrison, known among his high schoolers as the hip-hop cop, chimes in. “Everyone counts off by saying an assigned word from this rhyme: You down with Y–O–P? Yeah, you know me.” His fellow trainees love the idea and give it a try, laughing and cheering as they go. Spirits bolstered, the group—strangers this morning—heads out, bonded as if they’ve known each other for years.
After more instruction at camp (setting up and using a backpacking stove, keeping a safe camp kitchen, and practicing proper camp hygiene) followed by dinner, the trainees load all of their scented toiletries, dishware, and food into the campsite’s steel bear box. Harrison, who has never backpacked before, admits he’s a little afraid of sleeping in black bear country but knows that getting past his nerves will help him be a more confident leader. “If my kids see that I’m not afraid, then they won’t be afraid,” he says. By 11 p.m., the campsite is silent, save for a great horned owl hooting from a distance in the starlit night.
Morning comes quickly. The group is up by 6:30 a.m., practicing lighting the stove to boil water for coffee and oatmeal. Among the cooks are Kathryn Gilson, an education specialist at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York, and Adam Chawansky, a sixth-grade math teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative School. Prior to this trip, both Gilson and Chawansky had camped in campgrounds, but neither had undertaken a multiday backpacking trip. “I wasn’t sure exactly what I would need to know,” Chawansky says. “I feel like I have most of the necessary skills, but I’m concerned [about being] proficient enough to lead others.”
Gilson echoes Chawansky, adding, “I not only wanted to learn how to stay alive on my trips but how to have a ton of fun too.” Fun is on the agenda, but more immediate is a test, of sorts. Starting this morning, Venuat and McCrann will designate a series of temporary leaders, giving everyone a chance to demonstrate they have what it takes to guide a group outdoors. Gilson and Chawansky are up first. It’s a good transition into the training’s next phase: a three-day, 13-mile hike along Kittatinny Ridge, finishing back at the YOP gear library via the Appalachian Trail.
Eager to showcase their newfound prowess, Gilson and Chawansky oversee a speedy departure from camp and lead the group back to the parking lot, where they’ll catch a shuttle to the Delaware Water Gap trailhead. During the half-hour drive, the trainees brainstorm ideas for their first YOP-supported outings. Harrison plans to host a camping-themed workshop at the local library. Chawansky wants to take his seventh-graders camping at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, in preparation for longer trips to Mohican. Gilson hopes to lead her students on an urban backpacking trip through New York City. McCrann advises the group to start teaching skills in their schools, so the kids can get comfortable with the basics in a familiar setting.
“Remember: An outdoor trip should start at your youth’s comfort level, not your own,” he says. He refrains from reminding them that, just yesterday, their own comfort levels were a lot lower.
A banner carrier for YOP’s mission, McCrann went through the Outdoor Leadership Training in 2008 and began volunteering as an instructor that same year. Since then, he has led 10 trainings for YOP. He attributes his return rate to the attendees’ passion. “Without exception, participants are excited to receive the knowledge I have, which makes the whole process meaningful and enjoyable,” he says. “It’s really fun to teach people things they want to learn.”
Upon reaching the trailhead, Gilson and Chawansky seamlessly resume their leadership roles, reviewing a topographic map of the area with the group to take stock of the route ahead. Chawansky assists Harrison in locating water sources on the map and deciphering how much elevation they’ll gain. As Gilson and Chawansky lead roll call then lift their packs and amble up the trail, Venuat and McCrann linger behind, marveling at how thoroughly the group members have internalized what they’ve learned.
“It’s always rewarding to see participants begin to picture themselves and the youth they work with in the environment we train in,” Venuat says. “When I hear them talk about the tweaks they’ll make to their trips to achieve their program goals, I know they’re bound to succeed.”
Fast forward three days, 13 miles, two nights at remote campsites, one deluge, and countless pesky bugs, and the group returns to Mohican. Blistered, sore, and elated, they’ve learned a surprising amount about their capabilities as individuals and as leaders. Earlier this morning, Venuat and McCrann met with each participant individually to evaluate his or her progress. If the instructors deemed anyone in need of more experience before leading kids outdoors, they would chart a plan for further YOP training. But everyone in this group received an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Harrison circulates among his new friends, distributing high fives. “I’m more confident about backpacking,” he says. “I was worried in the beginning that I didn’t have enough experience, but I feel like I stepped up and did well for my first time. I’m excited to take more trainings in the future.”
Pleased with her own progress, Gilson is equally impressed by Venuat and McCrann. “I loved the way they presented complex and even intimidating material so clearly,” she says. “They did it so well, you don’t have a choice but to feel confident in your ability to take that knowledge back to your kids and show them how to do it, too.”
It’s this self-confidence—rooted in technical mastery, good decision-making, and a passion for the outdoors—that YOP hopes to build in both youth workers and their youth. The outdoors has the power to transform a teen’s world: at home, at school, and in the community. “Going outside gives kids time to reevaluate what matters in life, to listen to what’s in their hearts, and to simply have the space and time to be,” Chawansky says.
“Leading kids outdoors can change their lives.”
LEARN MORE: YOP AT 50
FURTHER READING: SUPPORT YOP