Elyse Takes Flight

2022 Explore Austin alumna shares how the program has inspired her to become a pilot

When Elyse Ochoa joined the 2022 “Girls Thundercats” Explore Austin team at the end of her sixth grade year, she was, in her words, “extremely shy, insecure, self-conscious and anxious.” However, she quickly bonded with her fellow Explorers and adult Mentors, falling in love with Explore Austin’s monthly Saturday Challenges. She begged her parents to take her to each month’s programming and, in six years, missed only one Saturday Challenge.

For Elyse, Explore Austin offered “an escape” from her home life, where she was told “you can’t do this, can’t do that.” Explore Austin enabled Elyse to become more confident; she “wanted to prove to [her] parents and brothers what [she] was capable of.” During her sophomore year of high school, Elyse confided to her Mentor while kayaking one Saturday that she was struggling academically. That conversation “was a wakeup call” for her. Elyse went on to play varsity sports at her high school and was elected senior class president. Today, she’s in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Houston on a full scholarship to study aerospace engineering.

“Explore Austin taught me to get out into nature when times are hard. [The program] gave me patience and taught me that when you have a plan and an agenda, you get stuff done. It also taught me about the power of reflection – to this day, I still journal because of EA. EA taught me good habits like this at a young age, which is the only reason I was able to get into it.”

Elyse Ochoa, ’22 Explorer Alumna

Elyse plans to become a commercial pilot, an idea she got after meeting a pilot on the plane ride back to Austin from her 2021 Summer Wilderness Trip to Colorado. Elyse had never flown on a plane prior to joining Explore Austin. 

Elyse’s first year of college was really hard. But, she said, “By the second semester, I got into a routine. I got all As except for one B. I knew college would be hard because my Mentors prepared me, especially one who studied engineering in college, too. My Mentors have visited me in Houston several times; they are always checking in on me. One of them even helps me get extra jobs during breaks. Just like in high school, during the Explore Austin program, her Mentors are lifting her up. 

When you invest in Explore Austin’s mission, you are letting local youth like Elyse know they are worthy of opportunity and support, and helping them to build their own legacy of firsts.

New Board Member Spotlight: Wayland Lum

Explore Austin is thrilled to announce Wayland Lum, Founder and CEO of Copperbox, to the Board of Directors. An entrepreneur and business owner focused on leadership building, Wayland was drawn to Explore Austin’s mission of developing young leaders through nurturing a love of nature and outdoor adventure.

Said Wayland, “A core part of my work involves taking adult leaders into immersive leadership development experiences in nature. The important work that Explore Austin is doing seemed a natural fit for the kind of organization I wanted to support; the mission aligns strongly with the leadership development philosophy, ethos and approach we practice at Copperbox. Explore Austin focuses on helping develop young, primarily BIPOC leaders in an outdoor setting, while engendering a love, respect and sense of responsibility for taking care of nature.”

Wayland obtained his master of science in Learning and Organizational Change from Northwestern University and his MBA from Baruch College, New York. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute, and is also a certified Wilderness First Responder through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He’s lived and worked in China, the UK, Mexico and Argentina, and has called Texas home since 2020.

Wayland founded Copperbox after serving as a core team member of Korn Ferry’s CEO and executive development practice. His passion lies in developing modern leaders, inspiring within them a healthy dose of nature, wonder and magic. His approach includes leadership coaching and real-time executive assessment, as well as designing leadership development programs that expand executive thinking. He’s worked with hundreds of leaders globally for companies such as Abbvie, Scholastic, Nike, Deloitte, John Deere and State Farm. 

Wayland’s global professional and personal experiences have informed his particular focus on diversity, equity and inclusion: “From my own lived experience as part of the LGBTQ+ and Asian-American communities, I know what it’s like to feel like the ‘other’ in different work arenas and geographies. I understand in a personal way the challenges of equity for Explorers, having been exposed to the multiple layers of Latino culture growing up in the Bay Area, and having taught high school kids in Mexico.”

Wayland, like Explore Austin, believes the magic of nature should be accessible to everyone, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status or physical ability. He personally enjoys hiking and running at local spots such as Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Austin and around Lake Georgetown, and emphasizes the importance of experiencing new landscapes, one of his favorites being two summers ago when he hiked the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe, California with a friend he’s known since kindergarten. 

“We covered 70 miles in six days, going from alpine lake to alpine lake. It was special to be out on the trail with a close friend, doing the thing!”

Wayland is delighted to join Explore Austin’s Board at this juncture in the organization’s growth:

“This is an exciting time in Explore Austin’s growth journey and I feel I’ll be able to contribute in meaningful ways to helping the organization achieve its goal of scaling its operations to help even more Explorers have life-changing experiences that form them into good citizens and leaders. I’m excited to see EA find a larger, permanent home that will meet this need.”

Please join us in welcoming Wayland to the Board of Directors!

New Board Member Spotlight: Sujay Regmi

Explore Austin is pleased to announce Sujay Regmi, Managing Principal and co-founder of APTUS Engineering, to the Board of Directors. After being introduced to Explore Austin by former staff member and Board chairman Laura Detke, Sujay saw alignment between the organization and his own passion for bettering the lives of young people, coupled with his love of the outdoors.

Said Sujay, “Children and youth are my passion, and I believe that every person deserves a safe and supportive environment where they can thrive. As a father of two, I know how important it is to have people in your life who you can rely on for support and guidance. I am also passionate about the work of Explore Austin, and I want to help the organization achieve its mission of improving the lives of its Explorers.”

Born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sujay earned his bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering at the Manipal Institute of Technology in India before moving to Chicago to complete his master’s in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Seeking a warmer climate more conducive to spending time outdoors, he moved to Austin 20 years ago and co-founded APTUS Engineering, a mechanical and electrical engineering consulting firm. 

Sujay works on commercial and residential projects and enjoys building relationships with Austin’s leaders, professionals and the general public – people he is looking forward to introducing to Explore Austin. He has developed particular expertise in HVAC systems, process piping, plumbing and electrical systems, and has applied these skills to projects ranging from new construction to complete facility retrofits, including office buildings, healthcare facilities, educational buildings and industrial facilities.

Sujay has a strong track record of volunteering his time and skills in the Austin community, and credits his diverse background with giving him an understanding of the challenges that people from a wide variety of circumstances face.

“I am determined to use this understanding to create an environment and community where everyone can thrive and succeed in their lives, goals, desires and ambitions,” he said, adding, “I have always enjoyed building and cultivating relationships with others. This allows me to share my perspective, hear others’ perspectives and work together to achieve common goals that help and benefit others.”

The warm climate in Texas has been a great fit for Sujay, his wife, their two middle-school children and their (very active!) chocolate labrador, Mocha. Sujay is a marathon runner, bike enthusiast and hiker who you’ll often catch on the greenbelt trails. Whether he’s training for the annual Texas MS 150 charity bike ride or running around Town Lake, he’s grateful for the access he has to the outdoors in Austin. He’s also set his sights on a goal in his native Nepal: “I still have not abandoned a dream of reaching the base camp of Mount Everest!”

Please join us in welcoming Sujay to the Explore Austin family!

ATX Paddle Dash 2023 Results

The most recent ATX Paddle Dash took place October 21, 2023 at Rowing Dock. Prizes were awarded to the winners in the race divisions, and giveaways, kid-friendly interactive activities, food and beverages were included with festival admission. Thanks to our gracious partner, Rowing Dock, 100% of proceeds benefited Explore Austin!

Race Results

Competitive Divison

Unlimited Single Male – 1st: Francisco Gomes 2nd: Brian Jones 3rd: David Carlson

USCA 2 Male – 1st: Stahl & Welch Urban 2nd: Edward Krueger & Nicholas Inglima

Open Divison

Single – 1st: Welch Urban 2nd: Jason Herd 3rd: Michael Leary 4th: Joseph Cronin

Double – 1st: Cassandra Seamus & Enyeart Mills 2nd: Kirsta & Wade Melton 3rd: Colleen Evan & Bell Eisenberg 4th: Kathleen & Anika Schneeman

Kids Division

Single – 1st: Michaela Urban 2nd: Elliot Miller 3rd: Tabbatha Compton

Double – 1st: Magdelen & Welch Urban 2nd: Dahyana Maia & Perez Mejia


Their Stories

Explorers, their Mentors and Explorer Alums explain the impact the Explore Austin program has had on their lives.

Nature Empowers

Seventeen-year-old Explorer Elliott Merryman-Stewart, now in her fourth year of Explore Austin, has learned to face life’s challenges head on. Due to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, Elliott’s muscles are weaker on one side of her body, making many day-to-day tasks difficult, let alone intensive outdoor-adventure activities in the Explore Austin program like rock climbing, canoeing and mountain biking. 

But she hasn’t let this stop her; in fact, from her patience and perseverance has come adaptation and growth, both on her part and Explore Austin’s.

When Elliott joined the program as a sixth grader, there wasn’t yet the breadth of adaptive measures in place for Explorers like her. With the guidance and expertise of the program’s professional Trip Leaders, each discipline has been adapted to enable Elliott’s participation.

“When I think of Elliott, I think about how quickly we learned to change our question from, ‘Do you want to try doing this?’ to, ‘How do you want to do this?’ Because we now know she’ll say yes to every activity and challenge.”

Katie Wilse, Mentor

Early on in the program, Elliott tackled rock climbing using a modified harness to ascend sheer cliff faces. The next year, she trained hard at Saturday Challenges in Central Texas to learn to canoe with an adapted paddle, all in preparation for paddling 50 miles down the Buffalo River in Arkansas during her team’s Summer Wilderness Trip. 

Elliott (center) and her teammates on their Summer Wilderness Trip in Idaho.

Emma Herzog, one of Elliott’s five Mentors, describes her as “fearless,” with a “never-give-up attitude that’s contagious. With a near-perfect attendance record with Explore Austin, she is a wonderful member of our team and brings humor, leadership skills and a positive attitude every time she attends an event. We would not be the team we are without her.”  

Most recently, Elliott and her team entered their mountain-biking year. Explore Austin initially borrowed a recumbent bike for Elliott to use during Saturday Challenges from Ghisallo Cycling Initiative, a nonprofit that helps people access the world by bicycle. 

Said Emma, “It was incredible to see Elliott’s skills on the recumbent bike improve with each passing month. Explore Austin did a great job of adding enhancements to the bike, like an electric motor that I like to refer to as ‘turbo power.’ This gave Elliott the flexibility to add some assistance as she peddled, if she wanted to.” 

Elliott ultimately saw the benefit this mode of transportation could bring to her day-to-day life – she lives only minutes away from school yet, due to her disability, was limited to taking a bus that took 20-plus minutes to get her there. As someone who tires from walking long distances, peddling to school with “turbo power” support would allow Elliott to get there efficiently and without exhausting herself. Seeing Elliott’s enthusiasm for biking and its potential to benefit her outside the program, Explore Austin worked with Ghisallo Cycling Initiative to get the recumbent bike permanently donated to her.

Elliott and her team capped their recent mountain-biking year with a weeklong Summer Wilderness Trip in Idaho where, said Emma, “Elliott was out on the trails with us every day. On the final optional bike day, she elected to ride the bike again over a nature scavenger hunt. This is just the most recent example of how Elliott takes every opportunity to participate in all that Explore Austin has to offer.”

While she’s never doubted herself, Elliott has accomplished more than she ever could have imagined through the Explore Austin program. She says that when she’s with her team in nature she feels peaceful and confident. Explore Austin has given her a place to push her limits, grow more self-assured and have a respite from everyday life. Trusting her Mentors and learning alongside her teammates, Elliott is ready to tackle any challenge – now and in the future.

Elliott’s Mentors are proud of her “never-give-up attitude.”

Nature Connects

Gemma Galván has felt the ripple effect of Explore Austin. Because the program only served boys at the time, she didn’t have the opportunity to be an Explorer like her brother, Rodolfo Galván; but over the course of his time in the program, Rodolfo shared his newfound love of the outdoors with his family, which Gemma gladly soaked up. 

Gemma and Rodolfo were born in Mexico and grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of east Austin under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, learning English in elementary school. Their father eventually moved back to Mexico to take care of his ailing parents while their mother remained in Austin as a single mother, supporting the family as a breadmaker. 

Brother and sister Rodolfo and Gemma.

“Though it may not be obvious, I owe so much to Explore Austin. Its efforts echo farther than you may ever be able to see. We are changing countless lives – one adventure at a time.”

Gemma Galván

Rodolfo, who has been an alum of the Explore Austin program since 2015, joined as a sixth grader, having never before camped, mountain biked, canoed or rock climbed. He’s now served on the Board of Directors since 2018.

Said Rodolfo, “My first Summer Wilderness Trip was hiking in Colorado. I wasn’t in the best shape of my life, and there was a peak we climbed that gave me a lot of trouble. This happened for a couple more years, but I stuck with the program. Eventually, I found myself at the front, leading the group. I found this new groove, and found so much beauty in everything we were doing.”

Gemma saw Rodolfo’s confidence and resiliency grow – both in the outdoors and otherwise – and came to understand that the outdoors is a space for everyone. Each year, her brother would come home from his Summer Wilderness Trips talking nonstop about his adventures. Descriptions of the “impossibly tall mountains he climbed and treacherous rivers where he white-water rafted” in landscapes he said “looked like paintings” piqued Gemma’s curiosity – she had to see what he was talking about for herself.

“I set off to Colorado as soon as I could. With $200 in my pocket, I drove 16 hours in my friend’s old, beat-up car. I had never driven in snow or put tire chains on a car, and I would soon learn how severely underdressed I was for the weather. But none of that crossed my mind.”

Gemma is now an avid adventurer who summits mountains, camps in extreme weather and has kayaked in Alaska. In addition to being inspired by Rodolfo’s love for nature, Gemma also saw – and herself felt – the impact of Rodolfo’s relationship with his Mentors in the Explore Austin program.

Said Rodolfo, “My relationship with my Mentors was much like a father-son relationship, especially because I didn’t have an active father figure for much of my adolescence. Some of my Mentors were leaders in the tech field, and I realized I wanted to pursue a computer-science degree in college, which they encouraged me to do.”

Today, Rodolfo is a software engineer with IBM and Gemma is a software development and operations senior team lead at Accenture. They balance work with time in nature and know the ripple effect of Explore Austin has only just begun in their lives – and beyond.

Rodolfo began the Explore Austin program as a sixth grader having never camped before.