Our Community - Reflections on Adventure | Our Impact

Women Who Lead: Martha Flynn

Our growing community is full of women who are devoted to helping more young women learn, grow, and discover themselves through outdoor adventure. We caught up with Martha, coach and coordinator extraordinaire of our local partner Little Bellas – Twin Cities, to learn more about how she became a Woman Who Leads.

Tell us about your role at Little Bellas  –  what’s a typical day like coaching Little Bellas?

I’m fortunate to have a dual part time role at Little Bellas, as Program Lead for the Woodbury MN chapter and also Program Support Coordinator. In my support role, I field calls from prospective chapter leads, letting them know about the Little Bellas organization and what it takes to be a lead and hearing about their amazing communities. I also work with leads in active chapters making sure they have the tools they need to run successful programs – setting up training logins, walking through checklists to make sure everything is ready for a program launch, mentoring new leads from my experiences and learning things from them. That’s what I love so much about Little Bellas – we aren’t a hierarchical organization, and are continuously learning from and helping each other. My favorite days are when my chapter is active and I get to ride bikes with the girls in my community and watch them gain skills and self-confidence while having a blast on their bikes!

Little Bellas. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

How did you get involved in women’s outdoor education?

When my son was a senior in high school, I encouraged him to join the mountain bike team, in its first year in MN as a high school sport.  I knew I would soon have an empty nest, so I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer as a way to stay connected with the youth in my community. I moved to working with girls in the sport because I could see how lopsided the numbers were, and realized they benefitted from a different approach to coaching. After working with the High School league for a few years, I learned of the Little Bellas organization and jumped at the opportunity to submit an application to start a chapter in MN. I am happy to report we have two MN chapters now and another in the application process, as well as a one-day camp in Hayward, WI.

Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience – and where was it?

My family is a tribe of bookworms.  We at times enjoyed the outdoors together, taking walks and such, but most of my memories are of all of us sitting around reading. It was during my sophomore year of high school that I had a breakthrough outdoor experience.  My best friend and I were selected to spend a week in Ely MN in the middle of winter at ‘Wilderness Camp’. Ely is in Northern Minnesota and is known for its remote location, beautiful scenery and frigid temperatures.  We snow shoed, Nordic skied and even camped overnight in single digit weather. On the overnight camping trip we learned to work as a team, dividing up the gear to pack in, tasks to complete and even staving off frostbite on toes by warming each other’s feet with our bellies! The culmination of the week was a hot sauna and a jump into a hole cut in the frozen lake. Exhilarating!

Little Bellas. Lea Davison. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

Many folks ask us “why girls-only?” In your view, what are the unique benefits of girls-only programs?

There are general differences in how girls learn new skills. Unfortunately, girls today are conditioned to have less belief in their ability to do something, especially something new. They may need time to process a new skill they are about to tackle, they want to see it done, then may need some encouragement to try. Girls respond to interaction and connection with their mentors and their peers. We connect with the girls on a personal level. We mentor them first in believing in themselves, having fun on the bike and appreciating being out in nature. With this atmosphere, the pressure to succeed or be perfect is off, and gaining bike skills comes more easily.

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?

Some of the obstacles are girls not being exposed to outdoor experiences or having women in their lives who participate in outdoor actives as their role models. Too often, the images they see of women are passive. We want to flip that and help them be active. We strive to find those girls who don’t necessarily have active, outdoorsy role models. We have to reach out in non-traditional ways. Work within our social networks in schools and neighborhoods to find the girls who will best benefit from our program. Once they are in the program, it’s easy. Finding them takes a little more work.

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? 

Absolutely learning goes both ways! One of the girls in our program lives near me and I end up seeing her and her family at different events. She identifies very strongly as a Little Bella and whenever she sees another girl who might be interested, she ‘sells’ them the program. This girl is enthusiastic in everything she does. I see her at a weekly racing event in the winter, and she recently won the grand prize in the raffle. A few weeks later, she won again, and I watched to see what she would do. Without a moment’s hesitation, she told the organizer she wanted to give the prize to another participant, because she knew he really wanted to win. So I would say from this Little Bella I learned to embrace generosity and spontaneity!

Martha and volunteer mentors teach girls about bike components at the Woodbury, MN chapter of Little Bellas.

What’s your favorite way to adventure?
Spending all day on my bike on single track. Riding new trails and exploring, stopping for lunch or a swim, and making it back to the trailhead completely spent.

“The most important benefit I see is these girls believing in themselves and challenging themselves to try new things. They also benefit by forming new friendships and learning to work together and support each other in groups.”

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.
Are you ready for a story? I had an experience quite a few years ago where a friend and I decided we were going to ski half of the Birkibeiner course in Hayward Wisconsin. We started in the early afternoon. Our respective spouses dropped us off at the halfway point, and the plan was we would ski back to the cabin and we would all have a relaxing dinner together. Things went well for the first quarter of the ski or so, and then the temperature dropped unexpectedly and our wax no longer had any glide. This slowed our speed down substantially.

The realization that we might not make it back before nightfall slowly washed over us. We started out joking about how fun it was going to be to ski in the dark, but neither of us really thought that would be fun. The sky grew darker and the hunger and thirst set in as we realized we didn’t bring enough to eat or drink for such a long period of time. The shadows on the trail made it difficult to judge depth and we would bounce over bumps on the trail. We didn’t talk much, both knowing we had to keep skiing to stay warm, but our skis were like sandpaper on the snow. For a while, I felt fine because he knew the area better than I did—we just had to keep skiing to stay warm. Then at one point he questioned whether we were going the right way and I felt this sense of dread, if he isn’t sure, what were we going to do? Then I recognized the trail section and pointed us in the right direction. It was as if we took turns taking the lead of the situation. We did eventually make it back, in the dark, somewhat shaken.

What did I gain from this experience? I learned to trust my gut and not leave the trail to find a shortcut to the road, and not to split up. I also learned to plan for the worst-case scenario, especially when you are in the North woods. Don’t bring just enough water and food, but extra. Plan your trip with more daylight than you think you need. Finally, I found out I can be in a frightening, dangerous situation and keep a level head.

Little Bellas. Lea Davison. Photographs (C) 2015 Rajan Chawla Photography.

Outdoor education’s benefits 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?

The most important benefit I see is these girls believing in themselves and challenging themselves to try new things.  They also benefit by forming new friendships and learning to work together and support each other in groups.