Getting Urban Youth into The Great Outdoors

Bay Area Wilderness Training

Earth Island Reports

photo of backpacking young people looking at a map outdoors

Last June, Carlee Scheinfeld set out for Yosemite National Park’s backcountry to take part in a Wilderness Leadership Training course through Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT), an Oakland-based nonprofit and project of Earth Island Institute. Scheinfeld, a teacher with the Oakland Unified School District, spent five days with 17 other youth leaders learning about equipment use, nutrition, map and compass reading, and leadership techniques through a program that is designed to give participants a hands-on backcountry leadership experience. The course, she says, allowed her to “feel the magic of the possibility of sharing the kind of support and beauty we encounter in the natural world with our youth.”

Founded in 1999, BAWT is based on the belief that safe, well-led educational wilderness trips can change lives, and that meeting wilderness challenges makes urban youth stronger in body, spirit, and ability. Wilderness – like no other teacher – introduces youth to first-hand lessons in personal growth, renewal, and how to help protect and preserve Earth. BAWT’s mission is to create opportunities for urban youth to experience wilderness first hand. At a time when studies show that the young generation’s alienation from nature is contributing to an ever-growing range of behavioral problems – from childhood obesity to depression – BAWT’s work is more important than ever.

Many youth-service agencies and schools with limited resources in the Bay Area would not be able to take their youth into nature without BAWT. The project’s training programs equip youth leaders with wilderness leadership skills and offer them free gear loans, financial support (if needed), and the community they need to assume the responsibility of shepherding a group of urban youth into the wilderness and back.

What’s unique about BAWT’s model is that it trains those who work with youth, such as teachers and community workers, multiplying its impact: Every leader trained can take an even greater number of young people outdoors. Training participants are often surprised by the amount and quality of gear BAWT can provide – everything from sleeping bags, backpacks, and boots to cooking gear and more. And more importantly, the relationships the adults build with the youth during these wilderness experiences prove invaluable once back home.

So far this year, BAWT has trained more than 146 teachers and youth workers, supported 200 trips, and helped get 4,300 youth outdoors. In April, BAWT celebrated getting more than 20,000 youth outdoors since 1999. That’s 20,000 young people who – without BAWT – may never have had the opportunity to sleep under the stars or see what they’re capable of in the world outside their city blocks.

At the end of August, BAWT moved its headquarters, and founder Kyle Macdonald began to transition out of his role as BAWT’s executive director after 13 years at the helm. The project welcomed its new executive director and CEO, Scott Wolland, right after moving truckloads of gear to a new office in Oakland with a more accessible gear library.

Wolland has more than 18 years of experience in environmental education, including 10 years as the director of the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center in Point Reyes. “BAWT is a leader in the movement to reconnect our youth to nature,” Wolland says, “and I’m excited about the opportunity to lead this respected organization. Together we will plan BAWT’s next adventure.”

Togetherness plays a huge part in the BAWT network, which includes an incredible community of supporters and volunteers. Together it’s possible to create opportunities for all young people to experience the magic and lessons the great outdoors has to offer.

Get involved and volunteer at a Discovery Session:
Want to climb a mountain and get free gear? Go to to learn about BAWT’s adventure fundraisers.

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