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