Government agencies have acknowledged in recent years the importance of outdoor experiences for children, and this week state officials announced a $40,000 grant that will help the North Cascades Institute bring more of the region’s teenagers into the backcountry.
The institute is one of 19 organizations in the state receiving No Child Left Inside grant funding this year.
“We’re really thrilled over here to receive that money from the state program and use it for our Youth Leadership Adventures,” North Cascades Institute Communications Coordinator Christian Martin said.
The Youth Leadership Adventures program is an opportunity for high school students from throughout the region to explore the backcountry in North Cascades National Park and surrounding national forest areas.
The No Child Left Inside money will help the institute continue to pay Youth Leadership Adventures tuition for low-income students.
Mount Vernon High School students Rachel Daniel, 19, and Monica Carrillo, 15, said their experiences with the program last year were unforgettable.
“It was all new. I didn’t know how to backpack,” Carrillo said. “I had camped before, but never hiked to different places. I had to push myself, but it was worth it in the end.”
Daniel said the views seen on each hike were inspiring. She remembers canoeing and hiking several miles to get to the destinations. It was the first time she had that type of experience.
“It was hard work and I pushed myself and I didn’t give up,” Daniel said. “I felt really accomplished.”
Both say they have recommended the Youth Leadership Adventures program to their friends and siblings.
“It’s so worth it. The experience is amazing,” Daniel said.
Educators in the area also speak highly of the institute and its youth program. The Recreation and Conservation Office received three letters of support for the institute’s grant application.
Laure Brooks, a teacher at Mount Vernon High School, said in a letter of support that 30 of her students have participated in the Youth Leadership Adventures and she has seen how the experience benefits students “academically, emotionally, socially, and physically.”
“I am so glad they got the grant. It (the Youth Leadership Adventures program) has helped so many of my students,” she said. “My students are stronger leaders, they’re happier people because they’ve had that connection.”
For some, the program enables them to visit public lands for the first time.
“Institute programs introduce many low-income and minority students to North Cascades National Park Service Complex and the outdoors for the first time,” wrote Denis Shultz, North Cascades National Park Chief of Interpretation and Education.
The Youth Leadership Adventures program started 10 years ago as North Cascades Wild, program manager Amy Brown said. Since then, 741 students have participated in the program, 145 of whom were from Skagit County.
In addition to exploring the wilderness through hiking, camping and canoeing, the youths are provided with stewardship and leadership training.
The students build and maintain trails and campsites and help manage habitat, according to the institute. They also lead group meetings and backcountry outings, as well as work with younger students from programs such as Mount Vernon’s Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program.
The institute anticipates 81 youths will participate in the Youth Leadership Adventures program this June through August, Brown said.
Carrillo said she was glad the institute offered scholarships for the program. A scholarship covered her expenses last summer.
Last year, 91 percent of participants needed financial assistance, and 60 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch, according to the North Cascades Institute’s grant application.
The institute’s grant application tied for second in the ranking process. There were 94 applications.
Recreation and Conservation Office spokeswoman Susan Zemek said part of why the institute scored so high was because it serves low-income youths.
The state’s No Child Left Inside grant program was created by the Legislature in 2007 to connect at-risk youths with “outdoor education and recreation experiences,” according to the state law.
After a State Parks pilot program in 2008 that benefited 20,000 students throughout the state, the grant program lost funding, according to the agency.
The program was brought back to life last year following recommendations from Gov. Jay Inslee’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
The grant funding is expected to be about $900,000 every two years.