Before she set off for two weeks backpacking in Idaho, Isabella Willard had never traveled alone—never been outside the state without her parents—much less hiked for two weeks through the mountains carrying everything she'd need on her back.
Willard, who is from Santa Clara Pueblo, was selected to attend a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course in 2017, an extension of outdoor programs run by Girls Inc. that readied her for this trip by car camping and taking long hikes over summers previous. She was just 15 years old when she boarded that plane on her own. While she still hikes often with her high school outdoors club and hopes to do more backpacking trips, she says, this trip "was an experience you can only experience once, and it's best the first time."
"I liked being out in nature," Willard adds. "I liked experiencing the weather, the wind in my hair. I think being outside makes me feel free."
NOLS board member Caroline Burnett, of Santa Fe, smiles and nods along as she listens to Willard. The two sat down with Girls Inc. President and CEO Kim Brown and another NOLS course attendee, Ally Rael, to talk about the programs with SFR. Girls Inc. has partnered with NOLS, the renowned nonprofit wilderness education school, since 2004. In that time, about 22 local girls have taken these courses, perhaps the most ambitious of the self-selected courses attended being a month-long sea kayaking trip in Alaska.
Girls Inc. is a Gateway Partner, Burnett explains: "Gateway Partners really provide opportunities for youth to go on these expeditions who wouldn't have the opportunities to go otherwise." NOLS spends roughly $500,000 a year on Gateway Partners, funneling more than 120 scholarships to 14- and 15-year-olds who would otherwise be unlikely to attend their programs for socioeconomic reasons. Two-week trips can cost about $3,600, and four-week programs run roughly $6,500. Girls Inc. fundraises to cover the plane ticket and essential gear like new hiking boots, taking attendees to REI for the kind of shopping trip most dirtbags only ever dream of.
Four years after her trip to the Adirondacks, which she describes as a place that's all steep uphill terrain, Rael is still hiking in those boots, and, having aged out of Girls Inc.'s programs, now works with the organization. Those two weeks of backpacking included stretches in which she had to carry her backpack over her head through wetlands, Rael says, and deal with the unexpected challenges of a concussion and an allergic reaction among her teammates.
"It was a really big learning lesson in how much a 14-year-old can do," says Rael, who had never before been out of Santa Fe without her parents. "It was hard to not have someone to rely on, so I had to learn how to rely on myself."
Expedition courses are structured so the NOLS leader swaps duties with the attendees, tasking teenagers with route-finding, cooking and other necessary backcountry skills. Burnett calls that "expedition behavior," which provides experience both in taking charge of a situation and in discovering the point when it's time "to accept help when you need it, which is not easy for any of us."
The broader stroke, she says, comes back to facilitating opportunities for women to find their own path.
Girls Inc. CEO Brown, who also attended a NOLS course in part so she could tell parents exactly what to expect for their girls, has developed the "enCourage" program of hikes and camping trips to lay the foundation for these trips. The organization asks that applicants to NOLS courses complete two summers in that program to build up skills and fitness. Now, she says, she doesn't have to work to recruit girls to apply, as the previous years' attendees serve as ambassadors to the program.
The organization points to some of the more tangled issues in New Mexico among the goals these programs can work toward. One in three New Mexico girls report being a victim of sexual violence, and the state ranks second in the nation for highest teen birth rate. They use exercises outdoors to practice establishing personal boundaries, like going rock climbing and setting a specific goal around fears and comfort level. That could mean climbing just 5 feet off the ground, instead of the 50 to the top of a route, and calling it good.
"It's about listening to your gut and knowing when to say 'stop,'" Brown says. "It gives little dribbles in a safe space."
That freedom, that self-reliance, that sense of competency and strength spill over to girls now ready to take charge, whether that's packing up for a weekend in the woods or otherwise strategizing for a promising future. This year's attendee takes off on July 7 for four weeks backpacking in the Pacific Northwest.
This story has been updated to correct numbers on NOLS Gateway Partners funding and participation.