How Mentoring with Explore Austin Changed My Life.

Written by 2021 Arrows Mentor, Samantha Penturf

I started with my group of Explorers the summer after their sixth-grade year. At our first team event, I got a lot of one-word answers or blinking eyes quietly just staring back at me. Our first trip was backpacking around West Texas and through this program I learned the quickest way to bond was by spending a week in the woods alone as a team. Over our years together I got to experience a lot of first through our Explorer’s eyes. The first time flying on a plane, first time away from home without their parents, first time going a week without a shower. Their timidness started to melt away every time they had to shout out climbing instruction while dangling from a cliff or yell out directions while zipping down a bike trail. I got to be a part of their perseverance and critical thinking skills as they develop over the years.

At our mountain biking focused summer wilderness trip, we pedaled up a tremendous hill and one of our girls was exhausted and struggling at the back. Once we got to the top of the hill all she could see was more giant hills ahead of us. It was overwhelming for her, and we had to sit down, breathe, and talk through it. She knew we couldn’t just quit and live the rest of our lives in the middle of the Colorado wilderness and the only way forward was over all those climbs. We came up with a plan to just focus pedal by pedal and to check back in once we reached the top. On the final giant incline of the biking trip, she was the first to pedal all the way to the top and threw her arms up in the air once she got there. Of course, I was proud of her, we all were but the best part was the pride I could see she had in herself.

The final Explore Austin trip is called the Capstone and typically takes place in Wyoming. Unfortunately, ours was planned in the summer of 2020 so it was canceled due to the pandemic. It was the trip we had worked towards and told the girls about for five years. Thankfully, Explore Austin came up with a plan for graduating teams to make up their final trip during their senior year spring break. It was a road trip to Arkansas or New Mexico. We presented it to our girls, and it caused a mutiny – in a good way. All my Explorers started their own Instagram conversation group and chatted about how they all wanted to do the big Wyoming trip in the summer. Among themselves they figured out dates and drafted an email that explained their position and request to the Explore Austin staff. Explore and the girls made it happen. It was exciting we would get to go on the trip and it even more exciting to see these once shy little girls act as leaders and independent young women.

Even now that the challenges and trips are over, the program created a network and community for the Explorers as they continue to grow into young adults. It expands and connects the Austin community across the city. If one kids tells us about her interest in real estate, we can all look through our contacts and find someone for her to shadow. When one of the Explorers struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic, she could easily reach out to any of the Mentors on our team to find help and resources for counseling. One of our Explorers is going to do a marketing internship through Explore and another worked this past summer in the grant program because she is interested into going into the nonprofit field. She said, “It was cool to see the behind the scenes of the program and Explorers and Mentors make it easy for development and marketing to make the case why the organization matters”.

I joined Explore Austin about seven years ago and it changed my life and expanded my community.  I hope everyone can find a way to participate in or support this meaningful program that Explore Austin has developed for this city.

Explore Austin Summer Wilderness Trip (aka the hardest week of my life)

By: Hannah Bruno, Explore Austin Marketing and Events Manager


When I joined the Explore Austin Staff team in May 2021, I walked in with the expectation the programming would be very similar to organizations I’ve worked for previously. In my experience, youth-focused programs are often simplified for the kids. So, when I agreed to dive headfirst into an Explore Austin Summer Wilderness trip, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Every Explore Austin staff member gets to choose a Summer Wilderness trip to tag along on each year. It was one of the perks I bragged to my friends about as I shared my new role. Having little outdoor experience (ok, none all), I opted to go with one of the younger teams on a backpacking trip to the Ouachita Forest in Southern Arkansas. It seemed the most logical choice, and to be honest, it seemed the easiest. I knew I wouldn’t have time to properly train; biking, canoeing, and rock climbing were out of the question.

The trip was harder than I could have ever anticipated. It was suffocatingly hot and humid. My hiking boots, which had only been tested on short “hikes” in Austin, produced nasty blisters within the first day. We averaged a pace of less than half a mile an hour, wearing 50-pound packs for 10 hours a day.  I was terrified by the thought of having to pull a tick off my body. Just one day into the week-long trek, I was sore and tired and angry at myself for not doing a trial run with a pack before committing to 7 days.

As we ate dinner that night, I chatted with one of the Explorers. She told me how tough the day had been. She didn’t think she could do it again tomorrow. I felt her pain – literally. I felt it in the stinging blisters on my left big toe and in the deep ache between my shoulders. I knew I should be positive. I racked my mind for standard pep talk material. You can do it! You’re tough! Aren’t you glad you took on the challenge? Instead, what came out of my exhausted brain instead was a defeated,

“I know. Today was hard. I wanted to quit more than once. I’m not excited about tomorrow.”

The Explorer looked at me in total shock.

“Really?”, she asked. “I thought all the adults here love to be outside?”

I realized that this Explorer had been trudging along thinking that the trip was only difficult for her. I took the opportunity to set her mind at ease – no, you are not the only one struggling. For the remainder of the trip, I took every opportunity to remind the worn-down Explorers that the trip was physically and emotionally demanding for me, too. We commiserated together. We celebrated together each evening as we reached our new campsite, dropped our packs, and headed to the refreshing river for a swim.

The Explore Austin program is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s not a watered-down outdoor experience designed to keep youth comfortable. It’s true outdoor high adventure. Challenging our youth develops physical and mental resiliency and a willingness to try new things. But, it’s not only our youth who develop from these experiences. As we adults struggle alongside them, admit that we are being challenged, but ultimately continue anyways, we model the kind of adaptability that leads to success in other areas of our lives. That is the kind of experience that leads to authentic and strong relationships.

Will I go on another Summer Wilderness Trip? Absolutely, I will… just maybe not to Arkansas in July.