Pathways: Urban Wilderness and Mountain Experiences for Disadvantaged Youth

The Cause

Over the last two years, the news has been full of stories about overcrowding of mountain trails and outdoor areas as people sought out nature amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. One group that was left out of this exodus to the woods was a group that could most benefit from time in the outdoors: at-risk youth in care.

Due to a range of barriers—budget constraints at social services agencies, lack of agency staff qualified to take the youth to the mountains, increasing risk management requirements, to name a few—these youth lack the opportunities to go into the wilderness that many other youth enjoy.

We remove those barriers by providing at-risk youth, typically between 13 and 18, with safe wilderness experiences. Our regular programming takes groups on four-day hiking and canoeing trips in the mountains during July and August. Primarily, we work with social services to take out the youth in their group homes and other programs. Through inquiries from a wide range of people who want to get youth into the mountains, we have found that at-risk youth are not alone in their lack of opportunity. There are a wide range of youth who are disadvantaged when it comes to taking part in wilderness activities. These include newcomers to Canada, youth from lower income families, youth in rural areas and more.

The Pathways program will provide single-day hiking, canoeing and other activities for both at-risk youth in care and these other disadvantaged groups, along with days dedicated to transferring the skill and knowledge that the adults responsible for the youth need to safely take them out on their own. These trips will take place in the mountains west of Calgary as well as in urban wilderness areas, such as Calgary’s Nose Hill and Fish Creek Parks and natural areas along Calgary’s Bow River. These single-day urban adventures also address the increasing staffing and risk management barriers agencies face in taking their youth on multi-day trips, and provide all disadvantaged youth with less intimidating, more accessible opportunities to experience the wilderness than four-day trips. Another benefit is that if participants resonate with their wilderness experience, they can go out on more trips throughout the duration of the program, which will run from May 21, 2022 to mid-October, 2022.

Who Will it Benefit?

Youth in the Calgary area who currently do not have opportunities to experience the wilderness—whether urban or in the mountains—will benefit from Pathways. This includes 13 to 18 year olds who are:
• Living in group homes, foster care and/or are in other social services programs for at-risk youth.
• Newcomers to Canada and whose families do not have the financial means, knowledge or time to take them into the wilderness and natural areas of their new home.
• Not economically able to afford things such as transportation to the mountains, recreational programs that include wilderness or nature activities, the gear required to safely take part in outdoor activities, and/or whose parents do not have the time to take them to wilderness and nature areas because they work more than one job.
• Living in rural areas surrounding Calgary and do not have urban wilderness or natural areas and/or access to recreational programs that include wilderness or nature activities.
• In other situations that result in a lack of opportunity to take part in wilderness and/or nature activities.
There is a growing body of research that confirms the significant benefits of wilderness and nature experiences to youth. A simple Google search will return studies that show that time in nature:
• Improves symptoms of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and others in both youth and adults.
• Increases self-esteem, self-confidence, teamwork and leadership skills, social skills, risk identification and mitigation skills, and more.
• Results in higher academic performance and high school completion rates.
• Lowers rates of involvement with the youth justice system along and rates of recidivism for those who are already involved in the system.
• Lowers rates of substance use, addiction and the health issues that accompany substance use.

For society, all of these result in lower social services, health care and youth justice costs. Pathways will lead to more youth taking the path to becoming independent adults who reach their potential and make positive contributions to their families, communities and society as a whole.