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.

Native Women’s Wilderness trek to Everest Base Camp! A Conversation with Explore Austin Mentor, Rocío Villalobos.

2023 Girls “Turtle Squad” Mentor, Rocío Villalobos recently completed an incredible trek to Everest Base Camp alongside a powerful group of women from Native Women’s Wilderness. 

We were fortunate to connect with Rocío and dive into her experience in the Himalayas. 



You recently got back from an expedition to Mt. Everest. How did the trip come about?

I was approached by Jaylyn Gough, who is the founder of Native Women’s Wilderness. She contacted me back in April of 2022 and said, “You know, I’m working on this project, I have this lifelong dream to go to Everest Base Camp and have that experience of trekking in Nepal. Are you interested?”. I had never imagined or dreamed about doing that trek or even getting to see Mt. Everest in person. I immediately knew that I had to say yes. It’s not an opportunity that I wanted to pass up. 

She pitched the idea back in April and had been working on getting a small group of women together that included some of the current ambassadors for Native Women’s Wilderness. I’m also one of the ambassadors for the organization. We didn’t hear a whole lot of updates, and I wasn’t sure if the trip will still happening as of August. So, I sent her a follow up message and at that point, and she said, “Yes, we’re going to go” and took it from there.

Confirming in August for a trip in November? 

November. Yes.

That’s incredible. What did the prep for the trip look like? 

The work that Jaylyn did and the relationships she’s built through Native Women’s Wilderness were meaningful. We were privileged that there were a lot of gear sponsorships that came in for the women participating in the trip. There were certainly some things that we had to purchase out of pocket, but a lot of the bigger gear to make the trip safe and more comfortable was donated by different companies. 

Physically, I was at a good starting point in that I run regularly, I do strength training regularly, and I do hike regularly. In terms of the physical aspect, I had a good foundation. The challenge of doing a trip like the Everest Base Camp trek, being from a place that is relatively flat or at a lower elevation, is that I didn’t really have the ability to train my lungs in the way that some of the other participants did. A few of the women who live in Colorado and New Mexico were able to get some of that higher altitude training. I think for me that was really the biggest challenge, it’s where I struggled the most, but physically the hiking of it, the day-to-day trekking was manageable. It was the altitude that really made me suffer in the end.

Was arriving in Nepal the first time that you all met each other?

In person? Yes. I have been on a few Zoom calls with some of the other women before I connected with Jaylyn through Instagram a number of years ago. So we already had that online, social media relationship. The same was true with a couple of the other women. For me personally, it was the first time getting to meet everybody in person.

After looking at all of your content on Instagram about your trip, the spiritual aspect of the trek really came through. Can you talk about that? 

Going into this trip, I had a specific purpose in mind that was multifold. I was there to build relationships with the other indigenous women that were a part of this trip and to learn more about the areas we were visiting including the country of Nepal.

I also used this as an opportunity to honor my father and his memory since he passed away almost a year ago at the end of February 2022. All of us were showing up with some shared purposes and this bigger recognition or goal of being grateful for all of the people in our lives who have played a role in shaping who we are, supporting us along our different journeys, and the importance of remembering our connectedness to the land as well as our connectedness to this broader vision and work that’s happening around representation and racial equity in these outdoor spaces. 



We each have different stories, but there is definitely a unifying thread for all of us. We all also really recognized the value of this trek and spending time in this space with each other as another vehicle for healing for our own mental health and wellness, but also the ways in which that ultimately also affects our ability to show up for our communities and the relationships that we have with the folks in our communities. Even though we were there as individuals, our collective impact and our goals were really much more far-reaching than just our individual experience.

Can you take us through the trip from arriving to Kathmandu? Did you unexpectedly go whitewater rafting?

Yeah! Everybody arrived at different times. A small group of us arrived about a week before, and others stayed about a week after the trek finished to explore and see more of Nepal. I didn’t expect for my first whitewater rafting experience to happen in Nepal, but some of the other women who arrived early happened to be rafting guides, so I felt like if I’m going to go whitewater rafting, why not go with two experienced guides that do this for a living, are super knowledgeable, and can help reassure me about doing something that is pretty scary for me since I’m not a strong swimmer.



My first full day in Nepal was spent whitewater rafting, which was a beautiful experience. It ended up being a lot of fun and a little scary. The following day, we visited with some of the family members of the owners of the trekking company that we worked with, Trekking Planner Nepal and Adventure Tripper, and they showed us around Kathmandu. They welcomed us into their homes and showed us how they prepare a traditional Nepali meal, Dal Bhat. We were able to get this kind of very personal, intimate cooking lesson and just an opportunity to build relationships with some of the people of Nepal.

The day after that, everybody finally arrived from their different destinations, and we had our first dinner together and got an overview of what to expect for the next few days as we started the trek. The next day, we had to go through the process that those of us who are in Explore go through where you just have to try and weed out all of the unnecessary baggage. You know, the little extra things that you brought just in case. You decide what you’re going to take and what you’re going to leave so that you’re not weighing yourself down.

We did have porters who helped us with carrying some of our equipment. We were able to separate some of our gear into items that we were personally carrying in our daypacks and then items that our porters would carry, so that was a tremendous help. I don’t think we would have been able to do the trek without the help of the porters. They were immensely valuable in our ability to do the trek and not have to worry about carrying some of the heavier items. 

We took it day by day. The entire trek itself is a total of 11 days. The first eight are working toward Everest Base Camp. It’s eight days to get to Everest Base Camp with a few days that are included to help acclimatize if you’re going up higher in elevation. We had two of those days where we stayed in the same location overnight and just did day hikes to go a little bit further up in elevation but still have a little bit extra time to just rest after we did the day hike. This is a little bit easier on the body, and it gave our lungs the chance to adapt. But as I shared, I really struggled a lot with the altitude, so I made the decision the day after we arrived at the Everest Base Camp that I was going to be helicoptered back instead of completing the final three days of the trek.

It sounds really dramatic. I was definitely struggling, and I don’t think I could have made it back down safely because of how I was feeling and the symptoms I was experiencing. The helicopter sounds, again, really dramatic, but it’s really the only way to get people down the mountain and back to the city so that they can get access to medical care. So I ended up having to do that after reaching the base camp, and some of the other women ultimately had to do the same. We started with ten, and of the ten, six completed the entire trek, including the return. All of us made it to base camp, but after base camp a lot of us were struggling and had to make the call to get medical attention.

What was it like coming off the mountain? 

It definitely felt like an adjustment being back in the city of Kathmandu. After we were helicoptered out, we arrived to Kathmandu to get checked into the hospital for an initial observation. That first evening and then the following day, our group missed each other because even though it had been a relatively short amount of time, just those eight days, in some ways it felt like a lot longer than that.

When you’re going through a really difficult time together, again, not uncommon to what some of our Explore Austin teams experience with their Summer Wilderness Trips, you develop a closer bond. You connect with each other in a different way because you get to see each other at your highest highs and your lowest lows. When many of us were struggling at different points along the trek, we showed up for each other in different ways. Because of that, all of us were able to reach the base camp. That’s not the case for many groups that start on this trek in particular.



There are a lot of people who have to turn back because of the altitude or because they’ve developed some other kind of ailment that prevents them from being able to get to the base camp itself, let alone complete the entirety of the trek. We were invested in supporting each other so that we were all able to reach the base camp together. That played a huge role in all of us being able to reach it.

The other women who were helicoptered and I all shared the same thing: we felt alone. We knew that we weren’t of course, the folks from the trekking company and medics were there when we got to the hospital, so we knew that we had others who were checking on us there in Kathmandu, but we were also missing being on the mountain with the other women. 

What were some of the biggest takeaways from the trip?

There were a lot of things that stood out to us from our experiences. One was just commonalities, even in terms of customs and traditions that women in our group carry compared with those we witnessed with the local Nepali people. These were simple things like dress and types of ceremonies. Every morning before setting out, local people would light juniper as a way to offer a blessing to the gods. That was similar to how we would start our treks with sage as a way to ground us and get us to a good mental space to begin the trek. It was a beautiful reminder of the similarities that exist across people. Connections exist between communities that are in very different parts of the country, or of the world, but have many things in common.

Another big piece for me had to do with nourishment. It’s easy to take for granted being able to get drinking water and not having to worry about possible consequences related to water. That’s not to say that it’s not a problem in the US, because we know what happens in the colonias and the US-Mexico border. We know what happened in Flint, Michigan. It was another reminder that we have a lot of privileges living in the US when we were going up the mountain and would see porters that had baskets strapped around their heads and were carrying food to communities that are at a higher altitude who needed food brought in from other parts of the mountain.

Food is something that is labor intensive, and it’s very easy for people to forget that it takes a lot to consume you know, an apple, let alone enjoy meat for a meal. So those are some of the things that really stood out to all of us. We felt really grateful for what we do have and acknowledged that it’s not the same for communities in other parts of the world, let alone other parts of the US.

Any other lessons learned?

I’m constantly being reminded that nothing is impossible. It feels kind of trite or cheesy, but if you had asked me a year ago, before Jaylyn reached out, if I thought I would ever see Mt. Everest or reach Everest base camp, I would have laughed and told you “No,” because it’s not something that I had ever dreamed of for myself. The things I imagine have been shaped by my environment and the people around me. I don’t have other people in my family or close friends who are doing these types of trips.

I’m really grateful for being reminded of how important it is to be able to dream about things that can feel impossible. We need to share these experiences and create opportunities so that people are able to have what feel like impossible dreams come true for them. The more we can share with young people in particular (I’m thinking about the youth who Explore serves), the better because if you’re able to start having these dreams at an early age, who’s to say what else you’re going to be able to dream up for yourself.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

The next big challenge for me related to the outdoors is a lottery I’ve entered for my first 50-mile race. I’m hoping to be able to compete this year. It’s been on my bucket list for a couple of years, but I’ve been struggling on and off with some running related injuries.

I’m starting the year feeling really committed to staying injury free. I think being in Nepal actually helped me to remind myself to go slow and to listen to what my body is telling me so that I am as healthy as I can be and well mentally and emotionally. So that’s really my big goal for this year and hopefully a trip to Mexico with my mom to visit family because it’s been about 15 years since we went.

That’s another piece for me on a more personal level to which I’m really trying to commit. Strengthening and reconnecting with some of our family in Mexico is important because those relationships are really important. I feel myself turning toward this a lot more. I don’t want to lose sight of how important and how crucial it is to hold on to some of those familial and cultural connections. All of that really shapes who we are and the way that we move through the world. So those are the big things for 2023 for me.

Amazing. Thank you for taking the time to visit with us, Rocío!


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Trail Food and Connection

Not only does Packit Gourmet cook up delicious trail food, they make an impact that helps others enjoy the outdoors. We are honored to have them as a sponsor. Their generous support has extended far beyond the office for years, and the meals they provide do more than fill bellies in the backcountry – they facilitate connection.

Recently, Explore Austin Trip Leader Nora Young sat down with us to discuss the importance of mealtime in the outdoors.

What prompted you to join Explore Austin and become a Trip Leader and Mentor? 

Good question. Funny question for me, specifically, because I actually did an Outdoors Educator semester with National Outdoor Leadership School right after college because I felt lost. I knew I was passionate about the outdoors, but I had everyone else telling me to go get a nine-to-five and take the corporate America route. 

After I did that semester with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) I was like, BOOM! Okay, I need to have some of this in my life but I didn’t know where to start so I picked up odds and ends jobs like raft guiding and things like that. One of my coworkers, Amber Bruner, who had been a trip leader with Explore Austin, contacted me as Explore Austin was looking for a female guide for a last-minute trip outside of Denver. 

She told them she had a friend who’s qualified, but lives out of state. Ultimately, they brought me on to that trip. The stars aligned because I knew I wanted to work with youth and be outside. Getting that phone call from Amber, being interviewed, and then getting on a plane and heading over to help these kids learn how to backpack was amazing.

Now, every year, I have a ticket to go visit friends at Explore Austin and feel incredibly fulfilled by helping youth get outside and do the things I love to do. 

We’ve always seen mealtime as sacred. What can you tell us about the impact of meal time on the Explorers and the trips?

Meal time is so important, especially when you’re on a trip in Arkansas and it’s been 95 degrees with 100% humidity. You are exhausted and you can’t even drink enough water to satiate how thirsty you are. It’s the end of the day and you’re helping people filter water and set up tents. Then, finally, the moment comes that you get to sit down, boil water and cook a meal for yourself. It ends up being the most relaxing part, but it’s also the most rewarding part of the day.

You’re just like, man, I conquered that trail! Now I get to sit and enjoy this fantastic meal!

With a lot of our groups, mealtime ends up being the time we chat about the day. We end up joking about silly stuff that happened on the trail, we talk about different roles in the group, and it’s just one of those really fun, casual community times that feels organic and laid-back.

It’s a time for Explorers to decompress from the day.

Mealtime helps facilitate reflection and growth- celebrating finishing up a big day, buttoning up camp for the evening, and taking time to breathe together. What’s that connection like?

What I love about that time is how organic the sense of community and conversation is. It’s different from facilitating campfire talks like Rose, Bud, Thorn. It’s a lot of laughing and jokes like “Oh, did you see who slipped in the river today?” or “You know, this funny thing happened” or “Hey, remember when I couldn’t get over this big log that fell over in the trail and you helped me over it?”

It’s similar to all those formal fireside chats we have after dinner, but it’s happening organically and they’re all excited to be talking about it.

So really, it’s this amazing sense of community. No one is ever left out. Everyone is helping. Someone is filtering water, someone is carrying the stove, someone is carrying the fuel. That engaged participation makes mealtime and the whole trip that much more rewarding for them. 

How have you seen the Summer Wilderness Trips make a deeper impact on the Explorers? What lights people up?

I had the privilege of being with the Lady Birds Group who started in 2021 with a trip to Colorado Bend State Park, then again this year on a backpacking trip in Arkansas. 

I watched them, for the very first time in their lives, learn how to cook on a stove in the backcountry, build a campsite and set up tents, backpack for two nights and go canoeing. We had pouring rain for the first night we got there and then the afternoon after that. We even had pouring rain in the middle of mountain biking! 

Watching them react to that rain with energy and spunk was incredible.

There were other things that were funny to me, too. Like on the first trip, I would remind Explorers to do things like filter water and make sure tents are ‘bombproofed’ before leaving camp. Then, all of a sudden this year, I hardly had to remind them of anything. They’ve grown in their skills over the Saturday Challenges to the point where they showed up to backpacking and absolutely crushed it. They knew how to set up their tents. If you reminded them, “Hey, let’s make sure the rain flies are nice and taught,” they knew exactly what that meant. The skills that we’ve delivered and the things that we’ve trained them on, they’re retaining and it’s very, very obvious that just one year of maturity and new Saturday Challenges really set them up for success in the backpacking section.

So it was especially fun for me to see because I’ve never been with a group back to back like that, especially at the younger ages. It was apparent that these are skills that they’re going to take away with them for the rest of their life. 

What about from the emotional perspective?

What has always impressed me is that, no matter what the group dynamic is at the beginning of the trip, by the end of the trip, there’s no man left behind. They’re all giggling and having fun in the van coming back. We had two girls on this trip who had barely even met the rest of the group. They were almost brand new. They’d only been to a handful of Saturday Challenges and weren’t with us last year. By the end of the trip, you would have thought everyone had been hanging out for years! Like, since the first grade. It’s amazing to me how when kids this young are faced with the adversity of really hot weather, steep climbs, bugs and mosquito bites, they overcome with a positive reaction.

Sometimes this is hard. It’s easy to have thoughts like “This isn’t fun. What am I doing here?” but 95% of the time, they cope with it by leaning into a friend, supporting someone next to them, and taking out their frustrations by actually being more positive or overly helpful to someone else. When they see someone struggling, they know what that’s like and they go help. Usually that person who was struggling the first day or two or three is the person that’s being the best helper by day four or five or six or vice versa. That’s really fun to watch. It keeps me coming back.

What was your favorite Packit Gourmet meal to enjoy on your Summer Wilderness Trips? 

The Chicken Salad is amazing! You can put cold water or hot water into it so it can be your dinner one night and your lunch the next day. 

It’s the best gourmet lunch you’ll ever have on the trail! 

I’m usually a trail mix and bars only person but once I actually got into the Packit meals as a result of Explore Austin, I was like, oh my gosh, I could have a chicken wrap for lunch?! It’s my favorite one because it’s so fancy!

So you’re usually a bar and trail mix kind of person. A lot of people are like that, but what’s the best part about having Packit on the trail as an alternative?

Hands down, the best thing to me as a Trip Leader was the fact that you could bust out Packit Gourmet for lunch and you could see kids smashing wraps with beans or chicken salad and a wrap or eating chili.

When you’re working with adolescents in the backcountry, you’re usually looking around at every meal time to make sure everyone is drinking water and eating as much as they should be. The fact that Explorers can get a proper meal on a 30 minute lunch break is so awesome!

Plus, a hot meal at lunch. Like, who does that?!

The Ripple Effect of Outdoor Adventure.

By: Gemma Galvan

When the Explore Austin program was founded, my brother was one of the first children to participate. Every year he would come home from his Summer Wilderness Trips and talk nonstop about his outdoor adventures in Colorado. Year after year, I would listen to every word. He shared about the impossibly tall mountains he climbed and the treacherous rivers where he white-water rafted. The best part was when he described the landscape; he would say it was like a painting.

It will come as no surprise that I set off to Colorado as soon as I could. With $200 in my pocket, I drove sixteen 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. My only thought, at the time, was how I was finally going to see the place my brother had told me so much about.

I spent the first two days braving a dangerous winter storm on my adventure. Reaching down deep, I pushed my body farther than I could have imagined, climbing my first ever mountain. And I finally witnessed the picturesque landscape my brother had tried his best to convey to me. It was the most challenging but amazing thing I had ever done. I decided I wouldn’t stop there; I wanted to see what else I had in me.

We always talk about the rippling effects this organization has on the community. A drop is all it takes, right? Well, brace yourselves because here comes the wave. Explore Austin has changed my brother’s life and, in doing so, mine. My brother is an alumnus of Explore Austin. He has attended countless excursions and makes up part of its leadership as the organization’s youngest board member. Because of the love for nature my brother developed in Explore Austin, I overlooked Colorado Springs at the top of the city’s second-highest pike. I kayaked across the frozen water of Resurrection Bay in Alaska. I explored the ancient stone dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. I rode horseback along the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.

Every time I returned from an adventure, I surveyed the challenging aspects of my life and thought, “I’ve trekked from Red Dot to the Rio Grande. How hard could this be?” I took that confidence with me when applying to my first company. I used the same courage to land my current position as a DevOps Sr. Team Lead at Accenture. It will be the same confidence and courage I will use to build my future with my soon-to-be husband. And I will be able to pass these traits on to my children someday.

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

Courageous in Play Helps Children Develop into Confident Adults

Psssst! Can we share a secret? Explore Austin encourages confident play in the outdoors. Yep, you read that correctly. We don’t play it safe when it comes to our Explorers and we think our program is better for it. Let us tell you why.

Courageous play, sometimes called ‘Risky Play’ occurs when children intentionally seek exhilarating and scary physical play situations that allow them to gain mastery over their fears. As research mounts on the importance of risky play for children’s health, development and well-being, there is increasing recognition regarding the need for action to create supportive environments for play. Risky play can have wide-reaching benefits for children’s health, development, mental health, and well-being. Driven by curiosity and excitement seeking, they learn about their environment, what it affords, how far they can push it and their own body, and how to manage the risks they encounter.

At Explore Austin our primary focus is encouraging Explorers to try hard things. Many of our participants have never gone canoeing, rock-climbed, explored a cave, or seen snow. Part of the program is teaching our Explorers and mentors alike, how to exist within some inevitable discomfort. This builds resiliency and strong bonds within the teams and prepares them for their future trips that will be more difficult, longer, and further away from home. The nature of Explore Austin’s program encourages ambiguity and decision-making on the fly. This stretches the muscles necessary to help youth feel confident in uncertain or ‘risky’ situations in the future.

Angela J. Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist and author of “Balanced and Barefoot”, reminds us of the challenges and instinctual solutions that children are facing: an ever-growing focus on quantity and quality of academic work, and a lessening outdoor recreation. She encapsulates the importance of childhood play to developing one’s physical senses and resiliency.

Formulating a curriculum based on mentorship and the development of transferable skills (Action-oriented, Courageous, Excellent Teammate, Strong Communicator), Explore Austin challenges youth to push the limits of what they believe they are capable of achieving. Through activities like mountaineering, backpacking, rock climbing, long-distance canoeing, and mountain biking, the Explore Austin program demonstrates the developmental potential that stems from allowing youth to try (and, yes, sometimes fail) in a safe, team-oriented environment.

Explore Austin Empowers Youth Through Mentorship and Outdoor Adventure By: Korrin Bishop

Do you remember who or what first sparked your interest in the great outdoors? Many of us have a story of how someone helped us connect to the wilderness. As a result of this connection, many of us now also have stories of how we’ve overcome adversity, taken on a leadership role, or learned how to better cope with the stresses of daily life. However, finding this type of mentorship rooted in the outdoors can be much harder for some youth to find, especially those growing up in more urban areas without access to the necessary gear or role models for learning the magic of a night out in the woods.

Explore Austin is looking to break down the barriers youth face in getting involved with outdoor adventure. Through mentoring, leadership opportunities, and outdoor excursions, the Texas-based nonprofit empowers youth to reach their full potential.

Laura Nettleton is the Director of Development at Explore Austin, and an avid outdoorswoman herself. She is one of the several inspiring members of this nonprofit team that is helping shape Gossamer Gear’s partnership with Explore Austin in support of youth within our community.

Interview with Laura Nettleton on Explore Austin’s Mission to Empower Youth

We caught up with Laura to learn a little more about Explore Austin’s mission-driven work, the importance of providing wilderness opportunities to youth, our new partnership with the organization, and how you can get involved, too.

Gossamer Gear: Can you start by telling us a little background on Explore Austin?

Laura: Explore Austin began in 2006 when three Austinites, inspired by their own mentors and their love for the outdoors, committed to a six-year journey to empower youth in our community. Our founders recognized that by combining the benefits of mentoring and outdoor adventure, they could inspire youth, whom we call “Explorers,” to look inward and build off their own self-confidence, leadership skills, and develop a sense of responsibility for themselves, their community, and nature.

Today, we serve over 300 youth (7th through 12th grade boys and girls) and have 100 volunteer Mentors who each commit six years to the program. Our teams of youth learn year-round, specific outdoor skills like mountain biking, rock climbing, backpacking, paddling, and orienteering through monthly Saturday Challenges and weeklong backcountry trips to places like Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

What makes Explore Austin’s youth programming unique?

Explore Austin utilizes several unique components to our programming, including long-term, group mentoring, our very own ACES (Action-Oriented, Courageous, Excellent Teammate, Strong Communicator) leadership curriculum, our depth of activities, and, finally, our combination of mentoring and outdoor adventure. I’ll focus on the long-term, group mentoring and our combination of the outdoors and community.

We pair each class of fifteen seventh grade Explorers with five adult Mentors to form one team that stays together all six years. This 3:1 ratio allows for intimate group dynamics with the benefits of teamwork, social-emotional learning, and leadership opportunities often lacking in the 1:1 model. We continue to maintain high retention of both Explorers and Mentors (90% or more), which I’d attribute to the group bonding of this component.

I’m a firm believer that the outdoors is the master at teaching us all our full potential. By pairing mentoring and adventure together, we help youth and our volunteer Mentors create reference points in their lives where they’ve overcome challenges and had a community to share in that, too. The outdoors serves us a platter of unpredictability, and our program provides opportunities where youth have adapted through some of the toughest, coldest, wettest, and most mosquito-filled days. Once youth prove to themselves they’ve done it once, that’s all they need for it to translate into other areas of their lives. I think Explore Austin is at its best in these moments of challenge in uncovering to youth that they’ve always had it in them to adapt and press on.

How do you select youth for the program and make sure they’re connected to the best mentor?

We work with partnership schools across Austin including KIPP, Wayside, Austin Achieve, and Austin ISD to first let youth know about our program. While we do have an application youth fill out, we primarily use this to understand a youth’s motivation to be in the program, let them and their families know of the six-year commitment, and screen for youth qualifying for free or reduced lunch. While youth can be in the program even if they do not meet this qualification, we do give preference to it.

Mentors also go through an application process that is more in-depth and includes background checks, reference checks, in-person interviews, and more. We do consider complementary personalities to teams when we match them, however, we also believe that adapting and learning to work with different personalities and backgrounds is an important part of what we do. So, we don’t necessarily match a youth with an exact mentor or team.

Do you have a story you can share of a youth from the program that really demonstrates the power of this outdoor-focused mentorship?

Last year, I was on a Summer Wilderness Trip backpacking with the Girls Arrows team in Colorado. One Explorer, Eva, was slow and methodical in how she hiked. We, as the team Mentors, knew Eva had more in her. We also knew Eva sets the pace in energy, too, for the group, and at the time, her energy was having a negative impact.

After hiking six miles and a few thousand feet of elevation and doused in rain, we set up camp. Knowing the next morning we’d have an alpine start, two Mentors pulled Eva aside to check-in. Instead of coming down on her, they focused on Eva’s ability to energize the team and affirmed their belief in her that she could pick up the pace. Our biggest concern was that Eva’s hiking earlier would create a precarious weather situation the next day if we were summiting the planned peak too late.

Initially, Eva didn’t believe she could do it. The Mentors kept emphasizing their belief in her, catalyzing the belief in herself. Given the option to either stay back and not do the summit or wake up a little earlier and get a head start, Eva chose the latter. The next morning, Eva submitted the 12,000-foot peak with the whole team. She held her arms high above her head letting the brisk wind brush her face, shared in the accomplishment with her peers, and smiled in pride. In that moment, I saw the art of mentoring meet a young woman’s nurtured belief in self.

What are some of the barriers youth in Austin face to getting outside, and how do you support them through those?

Austin is one of the top economically segregated cities in the county. If you look back at our city’s history, you will find that Austin redlined certain areas of our city in the 1920s and 1930s that limited not just economic development and generational wealth for black and brown communities, but access to well-kept green spaces, too. These systematic barriers continue on up to today.

I-35 is the tangible wrinkle in our history where we clearly can see how systemic policies and park placement impact our city still. Why this matters to Explore Austin and how it affects the youth we serve and their access to outdoor spaces is particularly important to us. We primarily serve black and brown youth, who as a group remain underrepresented in access to green spaces.

There is growing research which connects how contact with nature and social-economic status impacts overall well-being. We know that the outdoors provides a myriad of positive benefits, including reduction of stress and cognitive fatigue, and enhancements in creativity and restoration.

Many of the youth we serve have never been to the Greenbelt or even knew about Walnut Creek. This isn’t a result of lack of interest in the outdoors. It reflects a complex system of access, early childhood experiences in the outdoors, cultural factors, and discrimination. We have to acknowledge that both health status and economic status and our environment are intricately woven together. Austin has a long way to go in terms of equity, representation, and inclusion in green spaces, and we hope that as a program we are part of that solution.

How are you hoping this partnership with Gossamer Gear will strengthen the services you’re able to offer?

Partnering with Gossamer Gear, we hope, helps elevate both missions to get people outside — and particularly for us, youth. While Gossamer Gear focuses on doing more with less, Explore Austin focuses on doing more with community. I think both center around enhancing well-being. We all know that certain outdoor activities aren’t always affordable or easily accessed. We also know that our outdoor experiences can be enhanced with the right gear and the right people. I see our partnership magnifying Explore Austin’s ability to get youth outside with some of the best gear out there, ensuring the most enriched outdoor experiences while promoting the power of aligned missions to impact individual and community well-being.

Learn More About How You Can Support Youth Through Explore Austin

If you’re curious about getting involved with Explore Austin, such as becoming a Mentor or donating, you can learn more at: www.exploreaustin.org. You can also follow along with Explore Austin’s work on Facebook or Instagram. Still have questions? Feel free to drop a line to Laura Nettleton at: laura.nettleton@exploreaustin.org.



This article originally appeared on the Gossamer Gear blog, Light Feet.



A Message from the Explore Austin Board and CEO

Dear Explore Austin Community:

Many of us are reeling from the events of the past week, and we grieve the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others before them. As an organization, we must recognize the impact of race and power in our systems, institutions, and programs and identify the role we must play in the fight for justice and equality. We will further our effort to educate ourselves, build awareness within and around us, and take action to address the systems of inequality in our community and beyond. At Explore, we are committed to sharing the opportunity, beauty, and equality that surrounds us while immersed in nature. We are committed to continue to share the gifts of nature with as many youth as possible and clear the path as they and their mentors lead the way to a better future.


To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.

— Terry Tempest Williams


—The Explore Austin Board and CEO

John Burnham, Isaac Albarado, Simms Browning, Mica Crouse, Laura Detke, Rodolfo Galván, Jason Herd, Mike Leary, Robert Malina, Daniel Perry, Caroline Newman Phillips, Haley Robison, & Kathleen Schneeman

Opt to Act with Explore Austin & REI

For the 5th year in a row, REI is closing its doors on the biggest shopping day of the year and challenging people to #OptOutside this Black Friday. For the 3rd year in a row, Explore Austin is answering the call. #OptOutside is a movement to remind people of the incredible benefits of nature and outdoor activity. Through Saturday Challenges and Summer Wilderness Trips, Explore Austin creates space for the youth of our program to truly encompass the positive impact of the outdoors on their well-being. This year, REI has taken the #OptOutside campaign a step further and is asking participants to leave the world better than they found it. The Opt to Act Plan gives 52 simple weekly challenges to encourage personal-life changes to reduce one’s negative impact on the Earth. 


This year’s campaign closely aligns with Explore Austin’s values and specifically our ACES leadership curriculum. ACES stands for Action-Oriented, Courageous, Excellent Teammate and Strong Communicator. The Opt to Act emphasis displays REI’s Action-Oriented leadership within the outdoor community. In light of the current climate of our Earth, REI is leading by example and challenging the world to take action. 


Explore Austin practices and teaches Leave No Trace Principles to all its participants. As stated on the Leave No Trace website, “The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.” Leave No Trace is particularly important during Summer Wilderness Trips when Explorers are cooking, cleaning, eating and living in the outdoors for a week. Mentors and Trip Leaders ensure Explorers leave grounds cleaner than when they arrived. Any location temporarily inhabited must be left indistinguishable from the rest of the park, forest or mountain. This means not only picking up any tiny pieces of trash, but also food scraps that should not be left out for critters. 


Over the years, REI has provided Explore Austin with continuous support: from monetary donations to brand new hiking backpacks, tents, rain gear, etc. Explore Austin is especially grateful to have been a recipient of the REI Force of Nature Grant. Force of Nature is REI’s award-winning, social change initiative that supports outdoor adventure for women and girls and aims to make the outdoors the largest level playing field for all. 


After all REI has done for Explore Austin, the #OptOutside campaign gives Explore Austin a chance to reciprocate the support of REI and elevate a common goal of getting people outside. Join the Explore Austin community and #OptOutside this Friday. Remember to follow Leave No Trace Principles and make the conscious choice to Opt to Act in order to leave your mark and maintain the beauty and power the world has to offer. 

Up Mt. Baldy and Along the Continental Divide Trail – One Explore Austin Alumni Mentor’s Journey to Self-Discovery

“I knew deep down inside that I had to do something different in my life; something that would really challenge me. But, the more I would tell people about my trip, the more people would ask me; ‘why are you really doing this?’ It made me really think about it and because of that, it became clearer and clearer.– Danielle Krey Maupin, Explore Austin Alumni Mentor

Last month Alumni Mentor, Danielle, set off to backpack along the Continental Divide Trail. The portion of the trail she plans to complete totals at 2,200 miles and covers multiple states. Danielle has kept clear of any concrete plans to keep room for discovery and freedom. She received her final steady paycheck and plans to later return to school to become a psychiatrist. However, her plans for the near future span much beyond a professional career and deep down she knows this trip will play a major role in every area of the rest of her life.

“I really do love backpacking and I love the outdoors, but the soul searching is why my heart’s in it.”

Danielle was a Girls 2019 Mentor who recently sent off her girls after they completed the six-year Explore Austin curriculum. As the Explore Austin graduation coincides with high school graduation, her Explorers now enter the next chapter of their lives of college, work, and beyond. Danielle stood by her girls every step of the way through their transformation in the program. She spent countless Saturdays rooting for the girls, telling them “just one more step” until they finally reached the top of Mt. Baldy at the end of their final Summer Wilderness Trip. And now, Danielle feels it is time to push herself.

“I would say Explore Austin helped me the most in my self-confidence. Helping someone else feel comfortable while backpacking – always being the one helping, motivating – really gave me the confidence to know that if I can do that for teenage girls then I can do it by myself no problem. A lot of my fears that would have surrounded going on this long trip have diminished and I believe in myself, thanks to Explore Austin.”

Never failing to amuse her, the Explore Austin Trip Leaders provided Danielle with the skills and confidence she needed to take on the role of a true backpacker. Danielle has prepared for her trip in all aspects of her life including downsizing to an RV. But by far, the largest downsize was narrowing down to only the possessions she can carry on her back. The only “luxury” item she chose to take is a journal and pen to document her experiences and track her emotional transition. Danielle admits her fears lie heavier in her mental limitations than her abilities.

“I know my biggest challenge will be my mental capabilities. I know I’m physically capable but we always sell ourselves short; our heads get in the way of our progress. We doubt ourselves and sometimes I do have those moments ‘I’m going to be alone in the wilderness.’ I think that when I have really difficult days, the type of days where you just want to quit, and I don’t have anyone there but myself; those are the moments that are going to teach me a lot and show me I don’t need anyone else like I think I do.”

Danielle wants to separate herself from normal society in order to eliminate distractions of commitments, daily routines and cultural norms in finding her true identity. Danielle feels her journey will uncover her inner morals and passions through her time spent alone and in self-reflection.

“Culturally we’re always living in the past or in the future; learning to live in the present is really difficult. I told myself not to plan anything in my life for after this trip; I have a clean slate. I want to embrace living in the present moment and absorbing everything I’m experiencing for what it is, not for my end goal.”

“Just to exist in the world and not have to do anything besides hike. I feel like it’s going to strip away concepts I’ve made growing up in Western culture about our ideas of success and what it means to be a competent adult. I want to find out what my values are to break misconceptions I have about myself so I can enter my life knowing who I am and be better at it.”

“I’m hoping somehow that will happen while I’m in the wilderness.”

Honesty is one value Danielle holds closest to her heart. Opening herself to her inner identity and leaving behind daily life will encompass her personal truth. Danielle plans to “truly experience her own humanity”. Explore Austin has inspired Danielle, and now with her adventures, she continues to inspire others.

“I’m very excited to see who I meet out there but this is really a self-discovery journey. I’m doing it because I saw so much of what happened to the girls; I saw those moments how we connected when we spent a whole week together and were living minimally. There’s something there -I can’t explain it completely- but I really just want it to a deeper extend for myself. I’m so grateful for Explore Austin that I could do this and that I did do it. It is not an easy thing but just like we aim to teach our Explorers, growth is never easy.”