Local nonprofit Explore Austin has coordinated the trips since 2006, matching students who range in age from rising seventh graders to rising 12th graders with a group of adults, called mentors, on outdoor expeditions that get more challenging and farther from home the older students get.
The trips are not easy—physically or emotionally. Students, or explorers in the nonprofit’s vernacular, might be waking up before the sun to start a mountain climbing trip or riding 10 miles on their mountain bikes thousands of feet above sea level in Colorado, all while disconnected from their friends back home.
These challenges get to the heart of Explore Austin’s mission. By overcoming the obstacles, explorers build connections with their peers and mentors, and as they progress through the years with the same group on each annual trip, they are given more responsibility, building leadership skills along the way.
In the final year—a trip to the Wind Rivers Mountain Range in Wyoming—Program Director James Faerber said explorers are given autonomy to plan their hiking routes and meals, and they camp solo overnight.
“Ultimately, it’s a youth development program. And one of the big things we want them to develop are those leadership skills,” Faerber said.
Jenny Jensen, Explore Austin’s development and marketing specialist, said some of the explorers, especially in the younger age groups, will sometimes be uncomfortable disconnecting from their lives back home at the beginning of the trip. But by the end of the week, that changes.
“I feel like the transformation is my favorite thing that happens, and it happens in various ways over that week,” Jensen said. “They understand why they were there by the end of the week every single time they go.”
To apply for Explore Austin, students must be eligible for free or reduced lunch at their school. The program is free for participants.
Explore Austin recruits mentors in the fall. Mentors commit for at least two years, can stay with the same group of explorers for up to six years and do not need specialized skills to apply. In addition to the summer trips, mentors and explorers meet for nine “Saturday Challenges” throughout the year where the explorers learn leadership skills and prepare for the summer.