Building Resilience through Nature Engagement
When Lexus Morrow was a baby, her two and three year old siblings fell out of an open window when their parents left them home alone. Being in the crib spared her their fate, but all three siblings were removed from the parental home. Morrow bounced between family members and foster homes for ten years before moving back in with her mother. But at 16, her life revolved around watching her mother overdose and struggle with an eating disorder. She never knew if she’d have enough money to eat or get to school the next day.Then she enrolled in a free Outdoor Outreach Adventure Club at her high school in San Diego County. Founded by professional skier Chris Rutgers in 1999, Outdoor Outreach (OO) offers outdoor programs, leadership training and career opportunities to underserved young people who face adversity. “We work with youth who might be in the court or foster care system, might be psychiatric patients or come from a community that experiences drug and alcohol abuse or violence at higher rates than other communities,” explains OO Executive Director Ben McCue.
“We focus on building resilience,” McCue continues. “Our programs enable young people to build social and emotional skills. The activities are simply the mechanism. Through surfing or rock climbing, students can learn courage and how to face other challenges in their lives.”
So while Morrow was learning how to kayak, rock climb, surf and SUP, she was also building confidence and self esteem. “I learned hard skills, like how to belay, but I also learned more about myself, my role as a person, my place in society,” Morrow explains earnestly. “I learned that my voice matters, that the things and people I care about matter, that I have the ability to affect change in the world.”
Morrow also participated in OO’s Outdoor Voices Program, which gives young people a chance to advocate for outdoor equity. “We talked to local politicians, donors, the mayor, the governor, pretty much anyone who was willing to listen,” she explains. “I have pretty bad anxiety about public speaking, but going through the Outdoor Outreach program helped me find peace and joy in a chaotic world. I know how many other kids are denied that opportunity, and I wanted them to have the chance to experience what I did, so I figured the benefits outweighed the cost.”
After college she turned to McCue for career advice and OO created an internship for her. “They offered trauma informed trainings, plus training in specific activities, like surfing, kayaking, stand up paddling, being a mandated reporter,” explains Morrow. “I learned CPR and first aid, they’ll pay for me to become a Wilderness First Responder, they taught me how to drive the trailer and will even help me get a Commercial Drivers License! And they train me in administrative skills too.” When the internship ended, OO approached her about a permanent position. At 24, she’s their Youth Program Assistant Coordinator.
“Over half of our paid instructors are graduates of our programs,” explains McCue. “We are really proud that so many of our graduates stay connected as volunteers, staff and board members.” The opportunities for employment and professional development OO provides address one of the major disparities they see in the youth they serve.
OO is also proud of their partnerships with local social service and government agencies and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego. “For example, at the hospital we work with young adults who have been defined by their diagnosis their whole life. When we teach them to stand up on a wave or get to the top of a rock wall, we give them the opportunity to build an identity based on strength and accomplishment, instead of what they lack,“ says McCue. “These community organizations now look at nature engagement for youth as something that meets a critical need.”
All OO programming is trauma-informed, an approach that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety, aiming to help participants regain a sense of control in their lives. “One of our guiding principles is the idea of challenge by choice. We don’t force young people to do anything. We give them space to step into challenging situations,” explains McCue. “Of course we encourage them, but they don’t even have to get into the water on a surf trip.”
Sometimes this approach leads to unexpected breakthroughs. When Lesford Duncan, OO’s Senior Director of Programs, took a group of five guys climbing at a nearby crag, four made it to the top but the fifth struggled, and retreated halfway up. After his second attempt he looked at Duncan and pointed out that he hadn’t climbed it either.
“I told this kid I would climb if he belayed me,” says Duncan, who prior to OO was the Child Abuse Prevention Coordinator for San Bernardino County. “Our Operations Manager gave me a back up belay. When I was coming down, I looked at this kid belaying me and he had the most intense serious expression on his face. Everyone was cheering for him, but he stayed focused on my descent.”
Once he was safely on the ground, the young man turned to Duncan, amazed. “Man, you just put your life in my hands!” he said. “That makes us brothers. I need to be the best man at your wedding!” On a later trip, that young man admitted he grew up not being able to rely on anyone and not having anyone trust him. Duncan’s simple act demonstrated a level of trust he had never experienced before.
“In a moment like that you realize what we are doing at Outdoor Outreach,” explains Duncan. “The outdoors is this incredible place where we can help build confidence and resilience, we can help youth find a sense of joy, or belonging or healing. So many youth we work with lack access to these spaces, and that’s an injustice in and of itself.”
Coronavirus has made this lack of access even more glaring. “Being in the outdoors with members of your household is one of the safest things you can do right now,” explains McCue. “And yet at one of the most critical times for our community, during a public health pandemic, one of our most important public resources is not equally available. In fact, communities that are the most impacted by the virus have the least access to these spaces.”
Tatianna Butte, a former participant and current instructor who was mentored by Morrow, explains how outdoor inequity has impacted her life. “Where I live in San Diego, it takes me four or five hours to get to the beach on public transit, but it’s only 20 or 30 minutes in a car. Realistically people from low income neighborhoods like mine, we can’t afford the time or the equipment. We could buy a week’s worth of groceries for the cost of a single surf lesson!”
So, like Morrow, Butte talks to legislators about the importance of access to these spaces and getting Generation Z off their screens. “Just going outside and taking a deep breath and connecting to Mother Nature, it’s not the solution, but it’s part of it,” she explains. “Outdoor activity combats seasonal affective disorder, helps with mental and emotional challenges and also, of course, physical fitness.
“And for those who enjoy outdoor spaces regularly, take some time to understand the privilege that allows you to do these activities and go to these places with no worries,” Butte continues. “Help out a person of color or a low income person; break down some barriers. Don’t have pity for them, help them out, that’s how we create a better community. Know your privilege and use it to help out those less fortunate.”