Mentorship on the Mountaintop

May 7, 2015

By Chris Chandler

Celebration-CroppedOn his first trip out into the mountains, Jose got to witness the power of the backcountry.  He was not in the best physical shape and was fighting a cold. He struggled from the start, feeling discouraged and ready to give up. But with encouragement from us and his peers, he kept going. Just as it was getting dark, we reached the top. Looking out from the 10,000 foot peak, he smiled and said to me, “I never thought I’d make it.”

My family impressed a sense of civic responsibility upon me, and I’m inspired by their legacy.  Much of what I hope I can do isn’t as easily measured as dollars and cents, or newspapers, or growing a metropolis – it’s more like what one student, Steve, once told me after an emotional campfire and grieving his missing parents, “You’re the most inspirational person I’ve ever met!’” I still get teary-eyed.

From my wilderness education on a college freshmen orientation backcountry trip, the WYLD has always given me a sense of community and spirituality and then faith.  I’m inspired by mentoring and learning from youth, especially those with high potential and challenging backgrounds, because I can relate with many of them through my own life experiences.

The idea for Wylderness Youth Leadership Diversity (WYLD) came to me and co-founders, Meghan Shearer, Sonja Williams, Franchezska Zamora in 2013, while we were looking for an innovative way to make our outdoor youth education programs more effective. We also recognized that wilderness therapy for veterans was a growing field. By building a relationship Hand-Up-Croppedbetween veterans and the youth we served, both would benefit, using resources more efficiently and, more importantly, addressing incredible needs.

WYLD’s mission is to empower underserved urban youth and U.S. Military Veterans through transformative wilderness leadership programs and mutually beneficial mentor relationships. WYLD envisions a city where every youth and returning U.S. Military Veteran is given an opportunity to explore, connect and discover through nature.

In the wild, our participants learn about shared responsibility, environmental stewardship and the value of diversity. Today, the WYLD Mentoring program is taking root at Carver Middle School in South Los Angeles. We are committed to working with students and their families to provide opportunities throughout middle school and high school and setting them on a path towards post-secondary education. And this summer, we hope to send 32 youth on 3 backpacking and camping expeditions and train 16 veterans on the veterans mentor program.

It is incredibly satisfying to see these young people navigate their way over the mountain, overcoming their own mental challenges with the support of their peers. To see them stand at 10,000 feet, scream “I’m on a MOUNTAIN!!!” and fall in love with the wilderness and discover their own passions, resiliency and potential, has inspired me to give back in a more meaningful and impactful way.

Chris Chandler is the co-founder and executive director of Wilderness Youth Leadership Diversity.  To learn more about WYLD, please visit www.wyld.org or @LAWYLD on Twitter.

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