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 Sabra, Executive Director of local partner Little Bellas, to learn more about how she became a Woman Who Leads.
Tell us about your role at Little Bellas – what’s a typical day as Executive Director and Founder?
We like to call my role Founder of Fun here at a Little Bellas because this program is just meant to be fun and confidence inspiring. We are small, yet mighty organization, growing as fast as we can to keep up with the number of girls who want to get on bikes. This means my day varies wildly from answering emails and mopping the floor to jumping on conference calls with amazing women around the country to simply riding and singing with a seven year old. I feel honored to contribute to this organization of incredible volunteer women in whatever way is needed on a daily basis to make sure the girls all over the country have a positive experience.
How did you get involved in women’s outdoor education?
As a woman participating in sports of all kind, I simply love these endeavors and most of my confidence growing up was derived from outdoor sports. After seeing a lack of female community and camaraderie in cycling, my sister, a friend, Angela Irvine, and I wanted to change this. We didn’t want to complain about the lack of female participation but create the change we wanted to see in sport. That decisions has led to a life dedicated to making girls and women feel comfortable and confident outside.
Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience – and where was it?
My passion for the outdoors was the result of a happy childhood playing in streams and the woods while growing up in a community with the shared belief sports were meant to be fun above all. Regardless of weather or conditions, my family was outside. I never experienced a breakthrough outdoor moment because this was a way of life. When I grew up, I had to be called inside and provided a a few mile radius around my house as a boundary for outdoor play. I always pushed the limit of daylight, distance from my house, and time spent outside.
There is tremendous value in having girls work through a challenge, be outside, learn how to overcome failure in a supportive space without peer judgement. When we have successfully created this positive all female environment, the number of girls interested in sports increase and these girls stay in sports longer.
Many folks ask us “why girls-only?” In your view, what are the unique benefits of girls-only programs?
Boys and girls are different, especially as they progress through their growing years. Strength, physical capabilities, interests and approach will sling wildly through a child’s development. In creating a space of all girls, there is a basis of sameness and a strength that comes along with that. There is tremendous value in having girls work through a challenge, be outside, learn how to overcome failure in a supportive space without peer judgement. When we have successfully created this positive all female environment, the number of girls interested in sports increase and these girls stay in sports longer.
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 largest obstacle I’ve seen is confidence. It’s vital to instill a belief in our girls they can fail at something and grow from that failure is a key to participation. Failure is inevitable in trying anything and being outside. Athletes everywhere are pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion or “failure”. The largest barrier is changing the mindset around perceived failure and using that growth process to build confidence and belonging.
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?
I absolutely love working with the girls in the program. I recently taught a 13 year old fresh air girl from inner city New York to ride a bike. She reminded me that everyone has an athlete inside of them and a fire that ignites even with the smallest improvement. Progress is the best part!
What’s your favorite way to adventure?
Nordic and backcountry skiing! I love snow.
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.
I was sailing a 30ft sail boat with a friend across Lake Champlain and a huge storm rolled in. Winds were so strong the boat was continually getting knocked down against the water with only the two of us to man the boat. In that situation, I learned how to be cool, calm and collected in the powerful face of nature. The bond and memories with that friend forged through this experience are timeless.
Outdoor education’s 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?
When kids are asked what they find most valuable about sports, winning ranks 7th on that list. Mastering a skill, building friendship, progressing and mastering a skill all rank higher. This progress is actually what keeps kids motivated and involved. Teaching and taking the time to make sure every kid is progressing and sees that progression is the most important part of being a mentor.