Kevin Jorgeson’s Non-Profit Aims to Introduce 100,000 Kids to Climbing
By Leonie Sherman
A single climb can change the trajectory of a person’s life.
After Kevin Jorgeson climbed the Dawn Wall, the hardest free climb on El Capitan, he realized he might not have another epic historical climb in him. But he did have the drive to give back. “I always kind of wondered, what would it take to introduce a million kids to climbing, what would need to be in place to do that?” Jorgeson explains. So he started a non-profit called 1Climb.
1Climb quickly realized that introducing a million kids to climbing was beyond the reach of a new non-profit. They changed the number but not their goal. “Our core mission is to introduce 100,000 kids to climbing,” says 1Climb Executive Director Tim Baum. “We do this by building climbing walls in Boys and Girls Clubs and connecting those clubs with local climbing gyms. We’re not just building climbing walls, we are building communities.” Companies like La Sportiva, So Ill Climbing Holds and Head Rush Technologies have donated equipment, celebrity supporters like Jason Momoa have lent star power, and 1Climb has introduced 8,000 young people to climbing since their first wall opened in Sonoma in 2010. They officially incorporated in 2017 and have opened two more walls in St. Louis and LA.
“Our most recent grand opening in LA last year was amazing,” explains Baum. “We created a moving video showing the impact we can have on communities.” One of Jorgeson’s sponsors, Adidas, saw the video and loved it. They decided to donate one million dollars, enough to build 10 more walls.
“So we have a wall opening in Santa Rosa on December 4th, another wall opening in Denver in December, three more walls going up in LA around February, one in Portland OR in the works, four in New York City’s Madison Square Boys and Girls Club opening in June of 2020 …” Baum laughs. “We are going from three walls to about 14 in two years!”
That growth is partly thanks to Jorgeson’s hard work, partly thanks to corporate generosity and largely due to a sturdy well thoughtout system that can be scaled up. “Our model is very simple and very specific,” explains Jorgeson. “If the city doesn’t have a Boys and Girls club with a gymnasium, with space, with a local climbing gym willing to partner within 15 minutes, we just don’t do it.”
The commitment of local climbing gyms is critical to 1Climb’s success. “When we partnered with 1Climb and the Boyle Heights Boys and Girls Club, we knew this was going to be a partnership for life,” explains Mailee Hung, Director of Outreach and Communications for LA partner Touchstone Climbing. “We’re bridging the gap between the club and the gym, and we’re excited to see our communities come even closer together.”
The results are undeniable. Jorgeson says, “When it’s convenient for our partner climbing gym community to go over and mentor and climb with folks at the Boys and Girls Club they do it. In Santa Rosa, I can literally walk a block from my house to the club and climb with the kids whenever I want. They are going to get sick of me.”
They’re not sick of him yet. The grand opening was postponed until December 4th due to fire, but kids have already tested out the new wall and formed a climbing club. “So far they’ve climbed on it about four times and they love it, they absolutely love it!” gushes Amber Heidtke, the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Santa Rosa. “I’ve seen amazing transformations in kids with behavioral issues, kids who aren’t usually engaged or who are having trouble, they just take to the wall like a fish to water.”
“I think problem solving is an amazing part of climbing,” she says after a pause to reflect. “I didn’t know that before. But they have to figure out how to work a problem, anticipate the next move and understand the consequences. They have to conquer their fears. They are taking on a challenge, something entirely new, and facing it head on. If kids can take that and apply it to their lives, it’s the best possible outcome.” Heidtke’s enthusiasm is contagious. “I’ve been ED for four years and this is absolutely, without a doubt, the most significant growth tool we’ve seen. It’s the best program we have been able to add, it’s already had the biggest impact — and we haven’t even officially opened it yet!”
Heidtke is just seeing what climbers have known all along. “What makes climbing so special is stuff that’s baked into its DNA, it doesn’t need to be taught or manufactured. Just by getting out there and trying to climb, kids will get it,” says Jorgeson. “Climbing teaches you the lessons you need to be taught without having to design it into someone’s experience. You can’t predict what they need or what their home life is like. The sport is going to show you what you need just by the nature of doing it. If they’re looking to build confidence they will find it, if they’re looking for a challenge they can find it. We take a pretty soft, hands-off approach.”
But they take a hands-on approach when it comes to route setting and optimizing wall design for auto-belays. “We set walls up so most kids will be able to taste success on the first time, but there will be stuff that can challenge any kid that tries. We are providing the opportunity for kids to have whatever experience they are looking for,” explains Jorgeson. “I’m not a fan of deciding for people how they should experience climbing. We could set all 5.10s and just be like ‘Yeah climbing’s hard, life is hard, get over it.’ But I don’t want kids to be intimidated, I want them to feel inspired and encouraged.”
Mostly he wants more kids to get out there and climb. “It’s no secret that climbing is a sport rooted in privilege,” says Jorgeson. They are changing that, one wall at a time. “We are not really focused on a specific demographic,” he continues. “I didn’t want to try and attract kids, I wanted to take a more proactive approach and put climbing where kids are hanging out. The Boys and Girls Club serves four and a half million kids every year, so that seemed like a good place to start. The demographics of their membership are extremely diverse, so as a by-product of partnering with them we reach a really diverse group of kids. If we can move the needle just a little bit, if we can make climbing just a little bit more accessible and inclusive, that’s a win.”
They are already winning. During the grand opening in St. Louis, Jorgeson and donor Dan Chancellor, the co-founder of So Ill climbing holds, were standing back, watching the action. “This kid comes up and tugs on my sleeve and says ‘Are you going to take it down now?’” Jorgeson pauses as he recalls the moment. “And we were like, ‘No, this is yours now, you get to experience this in whatever way you want, whenever you want, from now on.’ We both kind of teared up and it strengthened our resolve to scale this thing up as much as we could.”
Adidas’ support has already snowballed into more corporate interest in sponsorship. “I think we will continue to grow,” says Jorgeson. “Once we’ve reached our goal of introducing 100,000 kids to climbing, we’ll start working on the next 100,000. We’re just getting warmed up. This is only the beginning.”