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.

Playing our ACES: Explore Austin’s Secret to Comprehensive Youth Development

Way back in 2006, when Explore Austin was established, our founders wanted to create a way for outdoor adventure to be used as a conduit for youth to learn lifelong, transferrable skills. Enter our ACES curriculum. ACES are the backbone of the Explore Austin leadership program, and each year of the program focuses on developing a particular ACES trait, while the final year focuses on putting all of the traits together. Through our Saturday Challenges, mentors and trip leaders emphasize qualities and actions that make an Explorer Action-Oriented, Courageous, an Excellent Teammate, and a Strong Communicator.

Climbing a cliff face or biking down a steep mountain trail is no time to be on the fence about your situational goals. We ask Explorers in our program to recognize a need for practical solutions and measurable goals. Learning the importance of being action-oriented means that youth develop the necessary planning and executive skills required to coordinate a 10-mile hike to the top of a summit, delegate necessary campsite tasks, and manage ambiguous outdoor situations. This skill translates into the real world as time management, self-motivation, and confidence.

There is no better place to develop trust in yourself than the great outdoors. Explore Austin brings youth into a totally new and often intimidating environment – whether it’s their first time sleeping away from home, or they’re scared of heights, or their legs feel like jelly after a day of carrying a 50lbs backpack. When our program participants to push themselves physically and mentally, they develop the capacity to deal with adversity and to keep their goals in sight. It’s this mental fortitude and courage which will empower them to set and achieve big, scary, ambitious goals in education, careers, extracurricular activities, and more!

As the adage goes, a team is only as strong as its weakest link. As our program encourages both Explorers and Mentors to build solid relationships, it is also equally focused on cultivating youth who are dependable and respectful teammates. Asking youth to reflect earnestly on questions like “Am I responsible?”, “Can I honestly say I’m contributing to the group?”, and “Am I thinking about others or am I only considering myself?” engages them in community-mindedness. Being an excellent teammate in the backcountry turns into being a caring, engaged, and empathetic teammate in your family, friend-group, sports team, and beyond.

Being able to communicate effectively is perhaps the most important of all life skills. Being a good communicator doesn’t only require saying the right thing at the right time. Above all, it requires mutual respect. Through the Explore Austin program, youth and mentors alike are introduced to different world views, perspectives, and belief systems. As relationships are built through Saturday Challenges and Summer wilderness trips, participants begin to share their thoughts and opinion. This open transfer of ideas can only work in a safe and respectful environment. Learning to treat others with dignity and listening to differing ideas and respectfully communicating their own is a crucial skill to develop in our youth.

These are the skills Explore Austin believes helps youth in achieving comprehensive wellbeing and the social-emotional skills that will allow them to achieve their definition of success throughout their entire lives.

Explorer Spotlight: Victoria Uriogstegui

When asked what stands out most during her six years in the Explore Austin program, East Austin resident and recent high school graduate Victoria Uriostegui has no shortage of tales about heart-pounding, stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping challenges. In her calm and frank way, Victoria narrates her first trip with the EA program. She recalls the anxiety of boarding a plane for the first time, the nerves of spending her first nights away from home, the exhilaration of mountain biking down steep and slippery gravel trails, the terror of sleeping in a tent in the freezing wilderness, petrified that every bump or rustle was a hungry bear lumbering into the campsite for a late-night snack. While riddled with pure emotions, these memories are punctuated with evidence of personal growth and a continued sense of community, as Victoria shares that she learned to channel her fear into determination and began to lean on her teammates and mentors to give her the little push of courage she needed to scale a boulder or press on through aching feet to cover the last miles of a backpacking trek.

Victoria and her Explore Austin Team, the Arrows, at a Saturday Challenge

As trust between mentor and mentee was built challenge by challenge, the pushes to climb a little higher or paddle a little faster evolved into candid conversations about the future. Victoria’s mentor began to discuss what her life could look like past high school and the EA program. They pushed Victoria to weigh her interests against potential careers, giving her the opportunity to take career assessments and personality evaluations. During this time, while working with the homeless population in her community, Victoria realized that she wanted to be a force for good, continuing the community-oriented work that benefited her so greatly. Now, accepted to the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication and Leadership, Victoria plans to pursue a career in the nonprofit or public sector. She’ll begin her journey in Fall 2021, with UT’s incoming freshman class.

Bringing the story full circle, Victoria is headed back to the place that spurred her path to leadership. Interning with Explore Austin’s fund development team, Victoria is playing a key role in advocating for the financial support that is required to achieve outdoor equity. In her own words, Victoria shares why the Explore Austin program is so important to her.

The Arrows on their Capstone Summer Wilderness Trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

“It wasn’t until I entered Explore Austin that I truly blossomed. The program was like a long retreat for me, where I discovered myself and refined my abilities. I began to form leadership skills my younger, timid self wouldn’t have believed. I look at all I’ve done, and I think about all about the opportunities I missed thinking they were “too hard.” Reflecting on my teammates and mentors, all amazing women, seeing them persevere through numerous challenges, has made me confident and proud. I am determined to be strong like them. I am determined to steadily hold the reins of my future.”