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.

Trip Leader Tuesday: Henry Adamson is here for the Mission

This piece is the second in a 2023 summer series, “Trip Leader Tuesday,” that highlights the Trip Leaders who make Explore Austin’s programming possible

Henry Adamson has lead canoeing, rock climbing and mountain biking Saturday Challenges for Explore Austin since 2021.

Henry Adamson can take the heat of the lowlands – they grew up in Florida, hiking its swamps and kayaking through the mangroves with their father. It wasn’t until they were 25 that they discovered climbing. They’d taken an outdoor-education job in Hong Kong, where their coworkers taught them outdoor climbing skills on their off days.

“I used to travel and work as an ecotourism guide, outdoor educator and wilderness-therapy leader in other countries and states, so when I settled in Austin, I was looking for a position I was familiar with and found Explore Austin,” explained Henry, adding: “I was drawn to the fact that Explore Austin combines the outdoor-recreation aspect with conservation education and social-emotional learning.”

An Explore Austin Trip Leader since 2021, Henry has since added mountain biking to their rolodex, which has become their favorite Saturday Challenge to lead Explorers and Mentors on because “there is a steep growth curve with the activity in as little as a day – from Explorers and Mentors who have never mountain biked before and are hesitant, to zipping through the trail by the end of the day and wanting to go again.”

Henry learned to rock climb at 25 years old in Hong Kong, where they’d taken an outdoor-education job.

Henry also leads canoeing and rock-climbing Saturday Challenges. Now, a couple years into their tenure, they can truly appreciate both the long-term nature of Explore Austin’s six-year program and its unique pairing of mentorship with free outdoor adventure experiences for kids who would otherwise not have access.

“The other companies and organizations I have worked for serve clients or students for short periods, from one day to a few months, at most. It is neat that through Explore Austin, one can observe an extended period of personal development in the community. The relationships that evolve between the Mentors and Explorers is also special because generally there is more of an instructor-student dynamic with outdoor programs, and Explore Austin’s approach is more holistic and interpersonal.”

Henry has taken inspiration from the Explorer-Mentor relationship and credits the Mentors of the Lost Boys and Adventure Seekers teams in particular with smoothing the trail for these deep bonds to form. Said Henry:

Henry has loved outdoor adventure for as long as they can remember.

“They are both very supportive groups, which is a community culture facilitated by their Mentors. It is inspiring to see the Explorers hold each other up and empower one another. They also step up to tasks when something needs doing. It has impacted me as a Trip Leader because it is a reminder that Trip Leaders can also be an integral part of contributing to the culture and modeling leadership. All of the Mentors of the Adventure Seekers and the Lost Boys have advocated for their Explorers and made thoughtful decisions on behalf of the group. They inspire me to be a more conscientious leader.”

Henry worked as an ecotourism guide, outdoor educator and wilderness-therapy leader in other countries and states before settling in Austin.

Although the great outdoors has been a major part of Henry’s life for as long as they can remember, what keeps them returning to Explore Austin as a Trip Leader is its people who live out the program’s mission of empowering young people from economically disadvantaged communities:

“I keep coming back because I enjoy leading with my coworkers, the activities we provide, and seeing familiar faces year after year. I also believe in Explore Austin’s mission, and there is no other organization like it in Austin.”

Mentor Spotlight: José Ignacio Porras

This month, we spotlight Explore Austin Mentor, José Ignacio Porras. We are so grateful to José for all that he contributes to our program. Get to know José below!

Where do you work?

I work at a civil engineering consulting firm, designing public infrastructure and private land development projects.

What drew you to Explore Austin?

I grew up doing outdoors activities and it’s something I’ve always loved, the opportunity to share this with other people is what made me volunteer for this program.

What’s a fun fact about you?

I have lived in 12 different cities and 3 different countries.

What sport would you be in if you were in the olympics?

Rock climbing, 110%.

What is your favorite park/national park/spot in nature and why?

El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, 357,000 acres of natural reserve. Cielo is Spanish for heaven, so you could imagine how beautiful this place is – caves, waterfalls, hundreds of unique species, and plants, it’s a full ecosystem that changes with the elevations that range from 1,000 ft up to 7,700ft! I’ve been there 4 times and always discover something new. The people that live there are very kind and do everything they can to protect the reserve, I truly love this place and the locals.

Mentor Spotlight: Becca DeRoeck

This month, we spotlight a new Explore Austin Mentor, Becca DeRoeck. Becca works for Slalom, a global strategy, technology, and business firm and one of Explore Austin’s generous corporate supporters. We are so grateful to Becca and Slalom for their contributions to our mission. Get to know Becca below!


Where do you work?

I am a Talent Acquisition Senior Manager at Slalom, where I lead our technical recruiting efforts focused here in Austin. I really enjoy my role & getting to bring amazing people into a truly people-centered & integrity-driven organization!


What drew you to Explore Austin?

I was a volunteer with Upper Ninety (now Verde Leaders), which brings after-school soccer programs to at-risk and economically disadvantaged youth. I was a volunteer with them for about a year until COVID hit and things took a pause and at that point I also changed jobs into a more demanding role, which made it difficult for me to commit to weekly practice sessions. After a relatively quiet year of work & staying socially isolated due to COVID, I was itching to get involved in a good cause with a particular focus on the outdoors. I live in Georgetown which is a more rural community & I started to really appreciate all of the opportunities to get into the outdoors & engage in my favorite hobby – bird-watching. It was important for me to find an organization where I could pour into others & really share my love of nature and Explore Austin popped up in a Google search as I started learning about local volunteer opportunities. Shortly thereafter, I signed up to be a sub-mentor and was immediately hooked on the program! I took time to think through what a six-year commitment might look like and it wasn’t long before I made the decision to apply for a full-time mentorship. I was elated when I found out I was one of the chosen few to join the 2028 girls’ program as a mentor!


What’s a fun fact about you?

I grew up in a small town in Sweden and moved to the US when I was 10 years old. My dad is American & my mom is Swedish so I grew up speaking both languages at home. My background is very multi-cultural, with my dad’s family coming from the Amish & Mennonite communities in the Midwest & East coast and my mom’s side of the family coming from Sweden & New Zealand. With the experience of moving abroad at a young age, I learned very quickly what it’s like to have to start over, make new friends, & adapt in new circumstances. The kids that are part of Explore Austin tend to share a similar background of growing up in bi-lingual households & having to adapt given their sometimes difficult circumstances. I enjoy connecting with & supporting young people who may be struggling in many of the same ways I did when I moved here, so it’s extremely rewarding for me to get to share my experience & also learn from them!


What sport would you be in if you were in the olympics?

I ran track in high school & competed in the 400m run as well as several relays. It was tough keeping up after middle school when everyone else grew & I stayed stuck at 5’2”! But if I could compete in the Olympics, I’d definitely want to get back on the track and race again. There’s nothing like that nervous feeling at the starting line & hearing the gun go off…but once you’re running everything else melts away!


What is your favorite park/national park/spot in nature and why?

That’s a tough question – I have so many favorite spots! One place that stands out is Lynn Canyon in Vancouver, Canada. My husband and I traveled to Vancouver for the first time in 2015 and fell in love with it. The beauty & variety of plants, animals & landscapes there is unmatched!

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.

Like, Why Do We Even Do This?

By Jessica Sager, 2020 Fierce Fancies Mentor


I cried when I reached the top of the mountain.

We had started our hike that morning at 3 am, under the huge expanse of a clear, cold, and starry Colorado sky.

Really, though, we had started 6 years before, a thrown-together group of pre-teens and wannabe (I say that lovingly) mentors, in the HOT summer sun of Texas. On that initial Summer Wilderness Trip – notoriously known as the *hardest* one we ever did, for more stories than I’ll share right now – the longest we hiked as a group was 2 (brutal) miles. Now, it was in the heat of the Texas summer sun, and it was with full packs on, but the fact is – it was 2 miles.

On this particular Thursday morning, we were waking up – dark and early – to complete a 6 mile hike that would take us across creeks in the dark, up snow patches with ice axes and gaiters, over countless rock boulders, and to the top of a mountain, to come back around a valley, and back to camp again. And if we were lucky – all before the afternoon storms were to come in.

(I love nighttime walks, and was *really* excited.)

2020 Fierce Fancies on Summit Morning

If you know me, it probably won’t come as any surprise that I generally like to take the unofficial place as the “caboose” during most of our activities. This is both practical and meaningful.

First – never have I ever been accused of being a fast walker. And, more importantly, I find the conversations with the girls who also find themselves at the end – the ones who struggle, or doubt themselves or question their choice to even be there – to be the kind of rich and real talk that I learn from and love the most.

“But really,” one of the girls – who was also hiking at the back with me – said, “I don’t even know why we hike mountains. Like, why even do this.”

This girl was one of my favorites. I believe you meet people of your “soul tribe” in so many places throughout your life, and this girl was definitely in mine.


Unlike me, however, she was *NOT* enjoying the journey this morning. She was terrified of heights and was hurting physically. While she was generally one of the most upbeat and positive in the group, when it came to heights, she was at her edge, literally and figuratively. She had even talked to each mentor separately the days leading up to this hike, mentioning that she didn’t think she would be able to do it. However, once you are on a mountain, there isn’t really a place you can easily just get off of it. No elevators, escalators, or teleporters on this one, sadly. And my teenage friend was not particularly pleased with that.

“I kinda didn’t even really want to come this year, but my mom told me I had to.”

She continued on like this, as we continued to hike and climb, despite all her resistance and near insistence she couldn’t keep going.

And, as we climbed up the trail and over the boulders, we discovered another important truth: You can hike any far and seemingly impossible distance in 10 step increments. Every time your right foot hits the ground, you get to count. One, two, three, four…. When you reach 10, you get to stop. For a moment, at least. And, then it’s time to keep going. The count begins, again. I don’t actually know how many times we counted to 10, but it was a lot. Sometimes, when the path evened out, we’d just walk and stop counting, and when it got harder, we’d start again.

Miraculously, and after countless counts of 10, the top of the mountain came to us. Or, us to it. Either way, we got there – our whole group was together again at the top of the summit.

As we reached the top, another girl who had been just a few paces ahead hugged a mentor and started to cry.

It was incredible, to see these girls have these emotional moments because of the physical feats they undertook and the natural beauty around them. 

Then, all of a sudden, I was crying. We had reached the summit of a mountain together, and the summit of 6 years of growing, laughing, hair braiding, adventuring, hurting, challenging, and learning together. And I knew in just a short while, we’d back down the mountain and heading home, again.

“This will be a memory too soon,” I thought.

Jessica, 2020 Fierce Fanices Explorer on the Summit of Mt.Baldy

After a few more hours of hiking down the mountain, I was happy to find myself on the final stretch of trail with my young straggler friend again.

I pointed at the mountain that now seemed far away and so high up. I traced in the air the path we had taken that morning, once again it looked like incredible feat: up a wall of snow, across the ridge, to a peak far away, and back down again.

“Can you believe you did that?” I asked. “You asked me why we climb mountains. We climb mountains to learn about who we are. And who we can become, because of them.”

Not going to lie – I still don’t think she was buying it.

Later, in our closing circle, a new truth finally was ready. An Appreciation game called “Spotlight” had become an important part of our closing circle every year.

It is moving beyond words to see young women share with full hearts about how proud they are of each other.

During her time in the spotlight, in between receiving heartfelt acknowledgment for all that she did for the group, my previously struggling young friend thanked the mentors and trip leaders for all their support, especially when she resisted.

“The top of the mountain was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen,” she said.

And later still, as our van pulled up to the airport and we were about to begin the last leg of our last trip home, I heard her say to herself and no one, in particular, a new truth that was just waiting to be seen:

“I’d rather climb another mountain, then have it all be over and be going home.”


I am so thankful for the way these past 6 years held me, grew me and changed me. All the mountains – both real and relational – taught me who I was, and who I could become.

2020 Fierce Fancies Mentors From left: Jessica Sager, Owen O’Brien, Gabrielle Bland, Shannon Messer

Pressing On: Adventures of the Explore Austin 2019 Girls

By: Danielle Krey, 2019 Girls Mentor

Going on my fifth year as a mentor for the 2019 Explore Austin girls team, it’s crazy to think that graduation is around the corner. I am constantly telling my close friends about memories shared with “my girls”, I can’t help but reminisce on our time spent together. As I think about their transition to their new stage of life, I stand in complete awe at how fast it has gone. The adventures have been plentiful, the laughs abundant, and the friendships true. In celebration of their amazing accomplishments, I wish to share a story to illustrate just a glimpse of what it was like to be a mentor for the 2019 girls team.

Sandra, 2019 Explorer with Danielle, 2019 Mentor

The story begins at three in the morning in the middle of the Colorado mountains. The group was going to summit Mt. Baldy at almost 14,000 feet. The days prior, we had been practicing our mountaineering skills nonstop. For those of you who don’t know, mountaineering is a mix between hiking and climbing with an additional friend – snow. Such trekking involves the use of ice axes, crampons, rope teams, and terms like “self-arrest.” This was the day we would be able to show off what we have learned from our beloved trip leaders.

The journey started out smooth with a few hours of night hiking prior to the sunrise. We hiked over a stream and through the woods until we reached our first, steep snow-field. We broke into our rope teams, secured our equipment, and were ready to climb. With one last glance up the daunting mountain, we began the hike up. I was in the middle of the rope team with two girls on either side, one of them being Nayeli. Everyone was inching -and I mean inching- their way up. It seemed way steeper when climbing than it had from the ground. Just as the sun rose over the mountains to hit us in the face, Nayeli looked at me and said, “I don’t think I can do this…”

2019 Girls Practicing Mountaineering in 2018

To be completely honest, I was scared too and my first thought was, “Just don’t look down.” Knowing that this comment wouldn’t be much comfort to her, I opted for, “You can do this. There is no going back” and we pressed on together. It was a slow ascent, to say the least, but we trusted our trip leaders, we trusted our ropes, and we trusted each other. We finally made it to the top, and later summited the mountain. When all was said and done, the day had turned into an 18-hour escapade. The victories were just as frequent as the obstacles, though it would take hindsight to reveal this truth.

I truly can’t find another memory that represents my group of girls more. First, there was a will for adventure, second there was a moment of wondering what we got ourselves into, and finally, there was the inevitable push to reach the goal. This process, in all its hardship and glory, was a repeating cycle; each component cultivating a team environment. Our experience was as real as I have ever experienced: one grand adventure.

Nayeli, 2019 Explorer

Let’s face it though, adventure doesn’t only exist in the outdoors. My girls have shown me their will for adventure in everything they do, including in their plans for the fast-approaching future. They want to be doctors and lawyers and writers and politicians. Their will power to face challenges is inspirational.

Just as I have seen them face challenges, I have seen them question themselves. This is where it gets real. You see, there was one part of the story that I left out: summiting the mountain that day was optional. Nayeli and every other girl in the group made the decision to go. I can’t help but think that in that moment on the snowfield, Nayeli questioned her decision. She is not alone in this experience for it happens to everyone. There were times as a mentor when I wondered what exactly I got myself into, and only half the story would stand if I pretended those moments didn’t happen. I saw hesitation. I saw the self-doubt. I saw questioning. One could even argue that there is no adventure without some level of these setbacks. What truly captured my heart was watching each and every one of them carry on anyway.

2019 Girls After Summiting Medicine Bow Peak in 2017

All 14 girls in my group are graduating the Explore Austin program because each and every one of them was serious about their role as an Explorer. They tried their best even on the days when it was hard. Sometimes, there wasn’t an option to go back, and other times, they made a deliberate decision to press on, to decide that this is what they wanted.

Their graduation is truly an occasion to celebrate. I am their mentor, but often I feel I have learned more from them. Our group was teamwork in its truest form.

2019 Girls After Summiting Mt.Baldy in 2018

To my girls, I will still call you my girls. I don’t know what the future holds for you, but I know that the number of obstacles you face will only be an indication of your countless victories. In my future moments of hesitation and doubt, I’ll remember these treasured memories of pressing on, and press on we shall to another grand adventure.


Mentor Matches

Valentine’s Day 2019: Explore Austin Mentor Matches


In honor of Valentine’s Day, we are sharing some of the love that has flourished over the years at Explore Austin. Mentoring with others who share common values and passions often creates a foundation for lifelong friendships, relationships, and families. Over the years, Mentors have fallen in love with Explorers, the outdoors, and in special cases, each other.

 Let’s meet some of our Explore Austin Power Couples and find out what Explore Austin means to them!

Paulina Urbanowicz, 2021 Girls Arrows Mentor, and Josh Pollock, 2021 AAPS Boys Mentor: Married (almost!) 1 year

How did you meet?

We met during our first mentor training. Neither of us was able to stay the night for the camp-out, so we carpooled to Inks Lake.

How does Explore Austin exemplify your shared values and interests?

We both value quality time, and mentally staying in the present. These are two things that Explore Austin helps our Explorers to focus on, and hopefully instills in them a life-long appreciation for the outdoors and the power of self-reflection and self-awareness. We also both think it’s critical to invest time in our community and in tomorrow’s leaders – we want to equip the next generation with all of the life-long skills and loving support that we’ve been fortunate to experience throughout our lives.

What is your favorite shared memory you have from your time at Explore Austin?

Picking each other up after getting back from a Summer Wilderness Trip and talking about/debriefing on our experiences. It’s fun and awesome to know that the other person actually has a very accurate understanding of what your (otherwise very unique) experience is like.


Claudia and Nathan Harding; both joined as NEW 2025 Mentors this year: Married for 13 Years

What encouraged you to become Explore Austin Mentors together?

We learned about Explore Austin from Jessica Pino, a past mentor, and we were immediately drawn to the program. We believe that we can all play a role in raising up the next generation and found the idea of mentoring through the outdoors very exciting!

How does Explore Austin exemplify your shared values and interests?

Explore Austin exemplifies our belief that our experiences can teach and empower us. Our hope is that as mentors we can support and help Explorers to believe in their potential through the experiences and challenges they’ll face on outdoor adventures.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Thank you to our Mentor Matches for spreading the love and for always being inspiring role models for our Explorers. The shared values among our married Mentors (like adventuring, self-awareness, self-reflection, and empowerment) are all crucial in upholding Explore Austin’s mission.

Sophia Cantor
Social Media Coordinator

The First Explorer to Become a Mentor

Guillermo Flores joined Explore Austin as a member of the second class of Explorers in 2007. At that time, the Program was in its infancy, and for Guillermo, he had six years ahead of him. He had first become interested in the Explore Program after seeing his friends who were already in the Program become recognized by his teachers for their growing maturity and confidence.

Every month, Guillermo and his team of Mentors and fellow Explorers would gather for their Saturday Challenge, learning the ins and outs of outdoor adventure while forging bonds with each other. As his outdoor skill-set increased, his worldview expanded. One Saturday after the other, Guillermo learned that his Mentors lived a life he had never seen before. They had different jobs than the adults in his community, especially his parents; jobs he never thought to consider for himself. Guillermo began conversing with his Mentors and shaped his dream of a life that grew from his upbringing and expanded from his experiences as an Explorer. He dreamed of a life that included college, a stable job, and maintaining relationships with key Mentors.

“Most of our parents that have jobs work service jobs or construction. Explore Austin gives minority kids, just like me, the opportunity to take the blinders off the dream higher than what’s expected of them.”

This dream carried him through the Explore Austin Program and into college–a place he never thought he would be.

Today, Guillermo is currently finishing up his degree in Construction Science at Austin Community College while simultaneously working as a project manager for a local construction company, Joe Bland Construction. After originally working day and night shifts in the field, Guillermo realized through the model ship of his Mentors that there were other possibilities too. From there, Guillermo took the confidence his Mentors and Explore Austin helped him find and asked his supervisor to shift into office work so that he could begin to learn the skills to become a project manager. Not long after that, Guillermo was promoted.

“Never be scared of any challenges. Explore Austin challenges are different from life challenges but they help you find the inner confidence that you need to succeed in life.”

At the end of 2017, Guillermo was selected to be an Explore Austin Mentor, becoming the first Explorer to ever return as a Mentor. When asked why he applied to become a Mentor, he simply replied, “It is the ultimate way I can help prove the impact of the Explore Austin Program. My Explorers will see somebody who has made it through the program, benefited tremendously, and then know that they too can make it in life. It will really bring it home when they see someone who looks like them succeeding.”