Amanda Burkybile saw first in her children that rock climbing wasn’t just a way to burn some energy, but that it taught them to focus, set goals and work hard, even to communicate—all in ways that few activities inspire.
"You can see immediately how kids are drawn to climbing—they're little monkeys," she says. "They want to climb on everything, so if you can give it to them in a venue where it's actually appropriate and teach them how to be safe about it, and address their risk-taking in a positive way … you can just see them flourish."
On a Wednesday afternoon, she gently coaxes her 3-year-old daughter as she stretches her fingers from one plastic hold to the next in the new building for the Santa Fe Climbing Center (3008 Cielo Court, 986-8944), which Burkybile's husband, Andre Wiltenburg, owns.
Their 3-year-old is one of about 10 kids at the gym, lining up to for a belay from their adult coaches on the climbing wall and swiftly ascending a free-standing boulder.
"I like it because I can have fun," says 7-year-old Zoey Davis, who says she started climbing when she was 4 and now climbs with the gym's kids program once a week. "I can hang out with friends, and make new friends."
Her coach, Rich Strang, helps her tie the rope to her harness, and she turns and clambers up a route with a small overhang.
"It's a good sport for them—it keeps them busy," Strang says. "It gives them good problem-solving and discipline to figure out the move and fight fears."
These kids are all part of preschool climbing classes and recreational climbing teams, but for years, Burkybile and Wiltenburg have been talking about how to reach people who might not immediately think to try climbing. With the new facility open, now seemed as good a time as any for Burkybile to launch Elevate Santa Fe, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing and diversifying the opportunities for people to participate in rock climbing.
"We're trying to make it reality for some people who would like the opportunity but would not necessarily be able to get there or afford it on their own," she says.
The goal isn't to recruit lifelong climbers as much as it is to spark curiosity and exploration.
"Rock climbing is just the vehicle to deliver the opportunities to people and to provide encouragement, to show people they can do things that maybe they didn't think they could do before," she says. "It's more about saying, 'Try this. You might like it,' and if this isn't your thing, maybe you have the courage to try something else that you're thinking about."
Kids are the first group they aim to work with, though veterans and adaptive athletes are on the list as well. They're aiming to start a three-week-long pilot program early next year for elementary school kids. A former teacher herself, Burkybile's goal is to take care of all the logistics and the expense, so teachers only need to make themselves and their students' time available. Gear and instructor time, among other expenses, costs about $50 per student, so she's fundraising to provide these free for students.
Research shows that, beyond the health benefits that can alleviate childhood obesity and diabetes, regular physical activity reduces anxiety and depression for children, and has been correlated to better concentration in the short term and improved skills in mathematics, reading and writing.
They're starting with third-graders in part because that's the age at which standardized testing begins to ramp up; this program, Burkybile contends, offers not just a different focus, but a means to progress mentally, physically and socially.
"It's not a multiple choice test measuring their worth based on their score on this thing graded by a computer," she says. "It's just a whole other way of encouraging kids to grow and showing them that you can't always see your growth on a piece of paper. Sometimes it's in how you feel."
In climbing, sometimes that can mean one more hold, or just getting off the ground for the first time; each step, each gain, shows they're getting better, and getting stronger, and that now is not the time to give up.
For more information, visit elevatesantafe.com.
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community. Send feedback and story ideas to email@example.com