GirlVentures: Empowering Girls Through Outdoor Adventures

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I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Emily Teitsworth and Brice Lovell of GirlVentures, a unique and inspiring nonprofit that aims to help adolescent girls find their inner strength and leadership abilities through outdoor adventures. As the only San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit of its kind, GirlVentures offers courses in the Northern California wilderness including backpacking, hiking, kayaking and rock climbing. Through these leadership progression courses, the girls in the program learn new life skills from their experienced educators and compassionate mentors and become empowered to reach their full potential throughout the process.

GirlVentures’ mission is: “exploring self, community, culture, health, and environment.” Their unique curriculum “nurtures self-esteem and resilience, as girls develop into empowered, confident young women who are conservationists and compassionate allies to each other. The experiences that these girls share enable them to feel supported, find strength from one another and within themselves, gaining the skills needed to face the challenges of adolescence and making a difference in them that lasts a lifetime.”

By participating in these programs, the girls gain strength from their time in the outdoors to become fearless leaders, as they build their confidence, self-reliance and athletic abilities. They learn to live healthy, relate to others, appreciate our environment and gain the courage and self-worth to become a confident leader.

How do you believe outdoor activities can be used as a catalyst for developing confidence, strength, self-reliance and leadership skills?

What are some of the benefits of an all-girl program? 

Research indicates girls’ self-esteem peaks at the age of 9, while boys’ self esteem remains the same throughout childhood. Programs specifically for girls are essential to creating an emotionally safe space to combat the erosion of confidence that occurs in their teen years. Leading girls-only small group programs that discuss sensitive topics and gender- related issues are especially important for participants to feel secure and not judged, and to help them express their authentic thoughts and feelings.

Focusing on adolescent girls is especially important considering they are more likely than boys to experience depression, negative body image issues, and timidity. Girls also often face barriers to outdoor activities: a lack of access to safe environments, transportation, and the economic means to participate in fee-based programs. Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 Special Report on Youth found that males participate in outdoor recreation at a higher rate than females.

GirlVentures prides itself in serving a diverse group of girls, from a wide range of ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds. What are the benefits of celebrating diversity in youth outdoor adventures, and how do you think it will help foster positive relationships? 

Simply put, building a diverse group of participants is central to the mission and values of GirlVentures. Our target population is adolescent girls needing the opportunity to take healthy physical and emotional risks, voice their opinions, work through conflict, and realize their full potential. Without these opportunities, studies show, girls suffer a loss in self-esteem, which can lead to depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, high-risk behaviors, and academic failure.

Historically, outdoor education has deliberately and structurally excluded non-white girls from less affluent families. Non-white youth continue to be underrepresented in outdoor recreation, with 79% of outdoor youth participants being white-identified. To combat the barriers that many girls face in accessing the outdoors, we deliberately recruit participants from diverse cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The intentional mix of girls in each of our courses is a unique attribute of GirlVentures, providing a rare opportunity for all girls to embrace what makes each of them unique, while building a community that celebrates diversity and mutual understanding.

Over the past twenty years, we have seen from post-course surveys that our programs are effectively promoting inclusiveness and understanding between girls. After going on course with GirlVentures, 91% are more likely to be an ally to another person; 89% are more willing to be supportive of others; and 87% have greater pride in their cultural identity.

Two-thirds of GirlVentures program participants come from low- to middle-income families and receive need-based, sliding-scale financial aid, ensuring a diverse socio-economic group of girls who can learn from each other as much as they are learning from our instructors. Many participants have never been hiking or camping and for some, it is their first time outside urban life. By working with schools and community groups, we reach families who may not otherwise have access to outdoor programs.

By working with participants from all backgrounds, including those disproportionately affected by the institutional systems of oppression, our programs empower girls as they connect with nature and each other. Our innovative curriculum inspires awareness of the dynamics of power and oppression in our society, and sparks questions in participants as to how these have historically impacted girls, and how they can be agents for positive change in their families, schools, and communities.

What are some of the programs and activities you offer, and what is it about these activities that foster positive growth?

Our programs follow a Leadership Progression Model so that girls build on their skills as they progress through each grade and our challenging courses. Through this Model, we annually deliver 12,000 program hours ranging from 30 to more than 300 hours per participant.

Throughout the summer we provide six expeditions that include a curriculum that integrates leadership, creativity, social justice and the environment while backpacking, camping, kayaking, orienteering, and rock climbing. On course, girls discuss identity, respect, and social equity, allowing them to recognize their inner value and build relationships across boundaries that might otherwise divide them.

Developing these skills over one- to two-weeks enables girls to break down barriers as to what they believed they could accomplish, as they gain access to nontraditional, historically male-dominated activities. They then learn how to apply these character-building experiences into their broader lives and become dedicated environmental stewards.

These programs provide a catalyst for positive, long-lasting personal change: about 40% of girls return each year, and more than 90% report that GirlVentures’ courses enable them to lead healthier lives and become resilient, connect with others and the environment, and build their confidence. By holistically supporting girls during a developmentally critical time in their lives, GirlVentures empowers them to become allies and leaders, positively impacting and strengthening our communities.

What are some of the most inspiring stories that have come out of the GirlVentures trips and community?

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