Tell us about your role at Wild Whatcom – what’s a typical day as Mentor and Coordinator?
I wear two sets of boots at Wild Whatcom. The first is as the Program Coordinator for Girls Explorer Club and the second is that of a Field Mentor. Though different in their day-to-day functions, these two roles share the same heart.
As a Program Coordinator, I often feel like that quote from Harold and Maude, that ‘the Earth is my body, my head is in the Stars.’ My mind’s eye is zoomed out, focused on expansive, far-reaching programmatic goals: the whys and hows of things. But my hands and feet are on the ground, fully emerged in the gritty logistics. This is a beautiful way of saying that I do a lot of work on the computer. I create and update curriculum, communicate with parents and service providers, schedule the mentoring staff and the group outings, and zip around a lot in meticulously color-coded spreadsheets.
“As a Mentor, I am always asking myself when should I step up in order to model collaborative decision-making or safe tool use, and when I should step back to create space for youth voice or participant-led exploration.”
Serving as a Field Mentor also requires a mental balance of big-picture design and on-the-ground presence of mind. It is a Mentor’s responsibility to see an Explorers Club group as both a cohesive entity that will adventure together from 2nd through 8th grade and a collective of individual girls with personalized needs. As a Mentor, I am always asking myself when should I step up in order to model collaborative decision-making or safe tool use, and when I should step back to create space for youth voice or participant-led exploration.
How did you get involved in women’s outdoor education?
I learned early in life that indoor employment did not suit me. When I was 20, I began working at an organic farm in upstate New York. Eventually, I found myself managing an organic farm-to-table farmstead outside of Philadelphia. I worked there every day, in every season, from sunup to sundown. My soul was bright with love and connection for the soil, the plants, and the bees. But at 25, my back was sore, my feet were stiff, and my hands were basically rocks. So when I moved to Washington state, I knew that it was time to chart a different course. I wanted to find another avenue of employment that filled my soul. I found Wild Whatcom’s website while driving across the country and interviewed for a position as a Girls Explorers Club Mentor the day after I arrived in Bellingham.
I didn’t get that first position that I applied for but I did eventually became a Mentor for Wild Whatcom’s after-school program. From there, I watched, learned, and slowly moved from Field Mentor to Program Coordinator. Through my work with Wild Whatcom, I became familiar with the mountains, forests, creeks, birds, and cycles of the land. Now, rather than growing and providing food for my community, I help foster young girls’ love for each other and their connection with their natural community.
Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience – and where was it?
Yes, I would definitely consider my family to be connected to the Land and the Water. My maternal grandmother used to take her 5 children on multi-week canoe trips and continued in the spirit of that tradition as her 13 grandchildren were born. I was 9 months old during my first camping trip with my mother at Assateague Island State Park. I was 18 months old when I went on my first backpacking trek in the Smoky Mountains. My childhood was spent roaming the Appalachian range, building houses for the forest spirits. Trekking in the Sandia Mountains and waking up covered in ladybugs. Floating through my grandmother’s garden, collecting seeds and berries and stories. So no, I can’t claim to have a breakthrough outdoors experience. My parents named me Stormie in honor of the feeling of rejuvenation that the heavy rains bring. They baptized me in the Rio Grande river and introduced my spirit into the eternal flow of Earth Water. In my heart, I feel nothing but gratitude for having been born into a family that cherishes connection to the Land and the Mountains and the Water.
Many folks ask us “why girls-only?” In your view, what are the unique benefits of girls-only programs?
I believe that the heart of girls and gender non-binary outdoor programming is in its ability to disengage from harmful cultural messaging and to hold a brave space for children to create self-images based in empowerment, connection, and vulnerability. Through cultural conditioning and media messaging, girls learn to believe that they are not enough: not thin enough, not pretty enough, not tough enough, not smart enough, not good enough. They see this message everywhere and over time, they begin to internalize it as self-loathing. Spending time in Nature offers a sweet caesura in the deluge of indoctrination.
Nature allows us to press pause on the propaganda and tune in to our internal compasses and to the teachings of the Earth. Bear, Pika, and Salmon show us that all body types are capable of surviving and thriving. Mother Mountain Lions and partnered Ospreys illustrate that every gender can be fierce, committed, and caring. Alpine meadows teach us that even in the harshest growing conditions, the Explorer’s Gentian will bloom in beauty. When the heart opens to these messages from Nature, the mind slowly begins to follow.
“When a 13-year-old girl spends five days backpacking through the North Cascades, the relationships between her community, her mind, and her body start to change. Her back holds the weight of her own survival, her legs propel her forward, her heart pumps fresh blood, and her eyes and ears bear witness.”
When a 13-year-old girl spends five days backpacking through the North Cascades, the relationships between her community, her mind, and her body start to change. Her back holds the weight of her own survival, her legs propel her forward, her heart pumps fresh blood, and her eyes and ears bear witness. The body that she has been taught to view as separate, lesser parts, proves itself to be something whole, vibrant, and filled with affirmation. Now the messages that she receives about her body are ones of fortitude and endurance. Her choice to express vulnerability isn’t targeted as being ‘too sensitive,’ but encouraged and heard. The connections made with her fellow girls do not revolve around collective disparagement but in the thrill of holding hands while they jump into a glacial fed lake.
These experiences are not content to wait quietly in the woods or to get left behind in the mountains. They become a part of a child’s story, of their ethos, and sometimes their self-identity. When we gather girls together in Nature, we are helping them to form a brave place in which they can unravel, breathe freely, and begin to reimagine an image of themselves, for themselves, created by themselves.
Part of the mandate of The Cairn Project is to help expand access to programs like yours in underserved communities. In your experience, what are the biggest obstacles to increasing young women’s participation in outdoor programs?
The list is LONG: societal and cultural expectations, intimidation aka, “the old boys club”, access to reliable transportation, language barriers, household and familial responsibilities, expensive gear requirements, program costs, and lack of representation in outdoors staffing are among the many barriers to increasing participation of young women, especially young women of color or LGBTQ identification, in outdoors programming.
Despite the roles of “leader” and “participant,” learning usually goes both ways. What is something you’ve learned from one of the girls in your program in the last few months?
So many things:
- One of the best pack covers is a Charmin Ultra toilet paper plastic bag.
- Mushrooms hold hands underground and that’s why they are such good friends.
- In every fading wave, swoop of a Cedar branch, and slow movement of a snail, Mother Nature is reminding us to be gentle with ourselves.
- Waterfalls are the best place to resolve Human nature with Nature nature.
- Everyone needs help, pretty much all of the time. So you should try your best to be there for others and ask for help when you need it.
- Some girls are fairies, others are horses, and still, many more believe that they are destined to be the dreamers, scientists, and leaders of our future world.
What’s your favorite way to adventure?
On foot, in the mountains, with only myself and a backpack. Maybe a dog, as well. Or in front of my fireplace, with Tolkien and good lamplight. Or by a body of water, with a pack of watercolours, a journal, and coffee.
We’ve all had those rough days outside that we look back on fondly. Tell us about a challenging moment in the outdoors, and what you gained from it.
It has been a cold start to December here in this little seaside town. The sun doesn’t seem to break the treeline until mid-morning and it sets not long afterward. The forests are especially chilly during this season and it can often be a challenge for our younger Explorers to stay warm and dry. Mentors recommend children to Come Prepared with wool or fleece base layers and puffy jackets and raincoats for outer layers.
During an outing over the weekend, this layering technique came to blows with some nasty cultural concepts of what a female body should or should not look like. At the beginning of the outing, a 9-year-old girl told me that she did not think that the jacket she was wearing would work. My first question for her was whether or not the jacket would be warm enough. She told me that yes, it was very warm, but that warmth wasn’t the problem. When I asked her what she thought the issue was, she became very uncomfortable and looking down at her feet, she said, “I think it makes me look fat.”
I had then, a rare, blink-of-the eye moment that seemed to encompass a lifetime of learning and unlearning. I felt within myself a tempest of responses. Would I tell this child that I didn’t think she looked fat and that she shouldn’t worry about things like that? Should I tell her that thin and fat are just two words used to describe bodies and that one is not better or worse than the other? What could I say that would be age appropriate and respectful of her lived experience, but that was also an adamant rejection of the toxic way our society values or devalues the female body?
Nature is the best teacher. I looked her in the eye and told her a story of Bear. During the summer and fall, Bear makes her way through the forest, eating all the while. Why does Bear do this? To prepare for winter. Yes, Bear eats and eats to store up lots of fat to help her survive the long winter. For Bear, fat is what keeps her alive and healthy, warm and strong. When I go into the forest today, I will take with me the lessons of Bear. How am I being Bear today? By wearing lots of layers and a warm coat. That’s exactly right. Look at all of these layers I have on! They are like Bear’s layers of fat that she uses to keep warm. Do you think that your jacket will help you stay warm and safe, just like Bear?
Remembering that I do not have to fight the status quo, I need only offer an alternative path, is immensely helpful in times like these. That alternative path isn’t a philosophy, a way of life, or even a state of being, it is simply a connection with the natural world.
The benefits of outdoor exploration extend far beyond simply learning how to set up a tent, tie a figure eight knot, or maneuver a bike around obstacles. What are some of the benefits that you see in the young women you work with?
I cannot even begin to tell you about the intellect, intuition, strength, and beauty that I see in the young people I work with. Some of them are bold and audacious in the skills that they learn. They come to outings with spoons that they’ve carved, baskets that they have woven, or facts about salmon that they researched. Many of them are full up with the fire of justice and engagement. They tell me about the environmental legislation that is being passed in the county or the service that they are doing to better the lives of abandoned animals.
The biggest benefit though is that they all love to be outside and that their love for nature isn’t prescriptive. Some of them love to get dirty, while others like to build well-crafted fairy houses. Some girls need to get their hair wet in every body of water that they encounter and others are content to sketch the waves upon the shore. They hear the mountain song, they dance in the wind, they paint with mud, they connect with the worms, the birds, the whales, the sword ferns, and each other. What else, really, could one look for?