Surrounded by the tall pine trees of the Uinta National Forest and slightly lopsided tents, six teenage boys looked around on their very first camping trip on Aug. 1.
Their experience was made possible by a new program called Step Out, a partnership created this year between the Westminster Outdoor Recreation Program and South Salt Lake after-school programs to get disadvantaged youth, ages 11–18, off the streets and into the woods.
The combination of the two groups has put both out of their usual elements.
The South Salt Lake centers on being able to “serve primarily immigrant and refugee populations and minority populations,” said Step Out Co-Coordinator Leah Weisgal.
In contrast, Westminster’s Outdoor program generally serves as a social outlet and stress reliever for college students during the school year, Weisgal said.
The grant that allowed Westminster to merge the two programs created a completely new and meaningful experience—especially for the students in the South Salt Lake programs, according to Weisgal.
“It gives us the opportunity to change up the environment and take advantage of a setting that they are living in but don’t often get to experience,” Weisgal said. “Imagine living in Salt Lake City your whole life and never going into the mountains—that’s a lot of the people we are working with.”
Step Out student leaders guided five different three-day camping trips over the summer with students from South Salt Lake.
To prepare for the trip, the students went on day hikes; navigated the Westminster climbing wall; and attended two workshops familiarizing them with the skills, equipment and activities necessary for the trip. The Salt Lake students then headed to the wilderness for one night of car camping and one night of backpacking.
“I love seeing the kids—their curiosity is just exploding,” said Sean Condrin, Westminster student trip leader. “They’re introduced to something new and they’re absolutely in awe. I think it’s great that we can provide such an opportunity.”
One such student, Ahmed Dahir, is a refugee from Somalia involved with the South Salt Lake after-school programs.
“I never went camping,” Dahir said, looking around. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this.”
The high school sophomore said that the South Salt Lake program STEM has been pivotal in fostering his interest in pursuing a higher education. He said he wants to attend Westminster when he graduates high school.
“I just want to learn and keep learning as much as I can,” Dahir said. “Going to the program is good. It’s important to go. This is your chance to go see whatever you can do in life.”
In a world in which Dahir says he and others like him are often underestimated, Weisgal said Step Out promotes a refreshing sense of confidence in the students by fostering self-sufficiency and resiliency in an environment open to discussing the root of such preconceptions.
“The microcosm of an outdoor group allows you to tackle personal, interpersonal and intrapersonal issues in a much more controlled and cause-and-effect environment,” said Weisgal, Step Out co-coordinator. “Some of the diversity and cultural challenges that the students may face and that others may face in working with these students—the outdoor setting is prime to tackle those issues.”
For trip leader Zoey Gray, the conversation is as important an aspect of the expeditions as the skills.
“I realize that these are very deeply reflective people that I’m with,” she said. “If you give them the right environment and the right conditions, it can just be such a meaningful conversation.”
The new program required a lot of tweaking compared with previous trips planned for Westminster students, Weisgal said.
Weisgal, who helped coordinate the program and create lesson plans, said that working with marginalized populations brought to light particular structural challenges that had been previously unexamined.
“It doesn’t make sense to a lot of students why they would want to leave and go sleep on the ground when their parents have been working so hard so they don’t have to sleep on the ground anymore,” Weisgal said. “Or why they should struggle to make dinner when it’s a struggle for them to figure out dinner every day.
“We have to change the way we structure our activities and our debriefing so it makes sense to the people we’re working with. There aren’t programs that we’ve found to tackle some of those cultural challenges in the outdoor field, so we got this grant to try and do it on a small level.”
After a successful inaugural year, the Westminster Outdoor Recreation Program expects to continue its partnership with the South Salt Lake programs for years to come, furthering Westminster’s goal of community involvement and cultural awareness and the South Salt Lake programs’ goal of getting kids off the streets.
“Community prevention programs are what I believe in,” Weisgal said. “If we keep focusing on that clean-up effort, then we’re always going to be doing clean-up efforts. But if we start trying to throw other lines down…to me, these prevention programs serve better.”
Weisgal said that the results of the trip don’t always feel tangible. But, at the end of the day, she said she knows these students likely wouldn’t have had this same opportunity without Step Out.
“I don’t hope that every kid walks out of every trip with a life-changing experience,” Weisgal said. “Sure, that would be awesome. But maybe it’s that they hear one thing about college that makes them think that’s real for them and that’s something they can do.
“Maybe it’s that they get to hang out and play like kids, even though they’re 14. They don’t get a space for that a lot of times. I’ve had kids on these trips tell me that this is the longest they’ve ever gone without TV. It’s a reality that people can grow up today and never unplug.”