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Women Who Lead: Maggie Benedetti

By The Cairn Project

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 Maggie Benedetti, Executive Director at Wild Hearts Idaho, to learn more about how she became a Woman Who Leads.

Tell us about your role at Wild Hearts Idaho- what’s a typical day as Executive Director?  

Wild Hearts Idaho is in its second year! We are a new organization and as the Executive Director, I wear many hats to fulfill our mission. Each day provides new challenges and successes. My main roles overlap in any given day and include fundraising, program management, volunteer coordination, and community outreach.

As with any non-profit, fundraising is a major duty. I work to develop positive donor relationships and engage prospective donors in our mission, including planning fundraising events, grant writing, and donor recognition. When we received the Cairn Grant in 2018 it was our first grant (!) and through these funds we were able to launch our first year of adventures! Funding is necessary to make our mission possible.

Another major role I fill is designing and managing our programs in outdoor adventure and girl leadership. This means putting together trip plans, learning objectives, safety procedures, hosting pre-trip meetings, meal planning, and managing participant registration and communication with parents. There is a lot of behind the scenes work to creating successful, safe, and engaging outdoor adventures! I co-lead our Youth Leadership Board (YLB) that engages the girls voice into WHI. This group of 7 high school girls and 7 female mentors is the backbone of WHI and is where girl leadership is put into practice. The YLB meets twice a month and engages in personal and group leadership goals to further the WHI mission. We have two YLB Members that serve on our organizational board and bring the girl voice into our board of governance. I help to promote the mentorship relationship between YLB girls and mentors, bring in guest speakers, and facilitate the monthly meetings.

WHI is predominantly a volunteer run organization. Our volunteers make our programs, events, and community outreach possible! I coordinate our volunteers and make sure they are supported in their commitment to WHI. I manage the volunteer commitments and roles as Adventure Mentors and Youth Leadership Board Mentors. Additional volunteers help with event planning, fundraising, and community outreach.

Community outreach is another crucial part of my role. I frequently meet with members of the community to spread the WHI story and engage them in our mission. WHI is often found tabling at local events and businesses in order to connect with girls, parents, community members and increase awareness of who we are and how to get involved. This year we are connecting with local outdoor partners to add to our adventure experiences. Building and sustaining these community partnerships is critical and an exciting step for WHI!

Founding and being the Executive Director of Wild Hearts Idaho has been the most challenging and rewarding role I have ever had and continue to do everyday. I myself am growing in leadership skills and using my voice in ways I didn’t foresee. A truly full circle leadership component to WHI.

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

I have had the privilege to be able to explore the vast wild places of Idaho since being a young girl. I have always had an interest in getting outdoors and sharing these experiences with other girls and women. I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector and “help people,” did I know what this meant, no, but I wanted to make the world a better place.  

After graduating with a Bachelors in Psychology, I had an opportunity to participate in international volunteer work in rural Kenya, Africa working with HIV/AIDS support groups and building school libraries. During this experience, I witnessed for the first time absolute poverty and how women are marginalized members of society. I also recognized the multiple levels of my own privilege as a white women born in the United States. My heart was drawn towards empowering women.

While receiving my Masters in Social Work, I worked with survivors of violence and sexual assault and pregnant and parenting teens. Through this work, I again witnessed poverty and societal structures that marginalize women in my own community, and the lack of opportunities available for positive, healthy, affordable experiences for girls. These experiences confirmed my purpose of empowerment and prevention, specifically for girls.

I know from personal experience that the outdoors has a profoundly powerful ability to heal oneself from the inside out. I had an idea to combine my passion for outdoor recreation with my internal purpose of empowering women. This idea lingered in my head for a long time. I went back and forth wondering if it would be possible to lead outdoor adventures for girls in Idaho. What would this look like? What difference would it make? What if I fail? The negative and sometimes positive self-talk was very real. Was I good enough to start an organization? Did I have the right skills, knowledge, background? I remember saying to myself, “if I don’t believe in myself, who will?” I pushed through the fear to embrace courage and during my last semester of graduate school I joined a business entrepreneurship program for students to make my dream a reality.

My business idea was the first non-profit idea to be accepted into the program. Through this program, I hosted our first pilot hike in May 2016 with a group of 6 teen girls and 2 additional adult volunteers. The girls on this adventure came up with our name, Wild Hearts Idaho. Our name represents being outside, embracing adventure, and having fun with other girls and women. From this first pilot hike, Wild Hearts Idaho has hit the trail running. We continue to engage the girl voice into all that we do as an organization for girls, by girls. And we continue to grow the women’s outdoor education community in Idaho.

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

I grew up hiking local trails systems around Boise and joining adventures big and small with my family. My family was very outdoorsy. Outdoor adventures were our type of family vacations. I had the privilege from a young age of joining my three older siblings and father on many adventures across Idaho and the West. My mom joined us on occasion mostly for the longer adventures out of state, secretly I think she enjoyed the quiet time at home without all the ruckus! I was in charge of lugging up the kitchen backpack – that included a dutch oven, have you ever had chocolate cake at 12,000 ft? Worth every heavy step!

It is hard to choose one breakthrough outdoor experience. Every adventure has had a meaningful impact on my life and shaped me into the woman I am today. My first multi-day river rafting trip was on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. This is the longest free-flowing river in the United States. It runs North (which is pretty remarkable) and has significant Native American history up and down the river corridor. The river canyon echoes with history or time and place, of lives lived and lost, of beauty and hardship. It is a sacred place for so many in very diverse ways. For me, there is nothing that will ever be truly as great as falling asleep under the stars, waking up to free flowing water, scouting a rapid as a team and coming to a consensus on the best route forward, paddling through multiple class 4-5 rapids each with a unique twist and character, and deciding the day is complete with a hot dinner as you watch the the sun fall beyond the canyon walls.

This magnificent adventure was my partner’s first river rafting trip and it was incredible to share the real beauty of Idaho with him as he took in every moment, learning how to set-up camp, pitching in to cook, captaining a boat, and exploring together. During this trip, I learned my internal power and strength alongside the strength of the river. I learned that through teamwork and communication, a group of 15 people can be self-sufficient and successfully navigate their way through a remote wilderness area, and that I will be a “river rat” who holds the Salmon River in a special place in my heart forever.

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

There are many unique benefits of girls-only programs. First of all, they create an environment where everyone has at least one thing in common, one thing they can all relate to one another by…being a girl. This commonality opens the door for more opportunity to simply connect in meaningful ways and have a platform to talk, without hesitation of being judged or not heard, on primarily girl issues and what it means to be a girl today. Girl-only spaces provide a place for girls to flip the script, equally participate, and have the strongest voice in the room. Girl-only programs provide a space for girls to be their unique, smart, strong, silly, and curious selves. They provide a safe place for trying and failing, a space that is full of support and encouragement, and a community thats sole purpose it to support girls and meet their needs. Girl-only environments provide the opportunity for girls to focus their attention inward, to break down self-protecting walls that may have been established for various reasons, and not have to worry about impressing someone by the way you look, act, or through your abilities. All of these unique benefits of girl-only programs increase the ability for girls to grow and dive deep into relationship building with themselves and others, and come to a bigger understanding that they are not alone in their experiences of being a girl in today’s world.

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?

Idaho has the most designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states, yet a very small percentage of our youth are able to access these places, with an even smaller percentage of girls accessing these pristine wild spaces.

Major obstacles exist creating hurdles to participation in outdoor programs for girls in our community, including cost/financial restraints, transportation, and gear. Each one of these barriers decreases opportunity and a sense of belonging in the outdoors for girls. At Wild Hearts Idaho, our goal is to breakdown any and all barriers to accessing the outdoors and adventures for girls. Making the outdoors accessible for all girls!

Cost/financial restraints are a barrier for many girls participating in numerous activities, not only outdoor programs, but any opportunity or experience that costs money. Idaho has one of the lowest minimum wage rates across the U.S. and a high rate of poverty. In order to breakdown the barrier of cost, we provide all of our adventures at no-cost to girls. In doing so, we see that all girls are able to participate and interact with girls across our community whom they potentially would not otherwise have opportunities to engage with and learn from. To breakdown the transportation barrier, we provide transportation to and from every nonlocal adventure. Making sure every girl can participate regardless of her or her families access to reliable transportation. We also provide nutritious meals on every adventure, in which girls are engaged in cooking meals, and learning skills while engaged in the process.

Gear is another huge barrier. It’s expensive, often doesn’t fit growing teen bodies, and is not a priority for girls who have never experienced outdoor adventure. Not having proper gear for an overnight backpacking trip or whitewater rafting trip are major obstacles for anyone’s ability to engage in the outdoors. This is why we have a small (but growing) gear closet where girls can check out needed adventure gear. If we don’t have an item available, we try our best to locate a spare and have it ready for a girl in need. Making sure each girl has the necessary gear for each adventure makes it possible for her to feel comfortable and participate to her full extent.

By breaking down these barriers we effectively are building the future generation of female explorers and adventures. The next generation of women who know that the outdoors is a place where they belong.

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?

This is so true. Learning is a mutual experience, and at Wild Hearts Idaho, a main goal of our adventures is creating impactful and shared learning experiences that are just as impactful for the girl adventurers as they are for the adult female mentors.Women mentoring women through generational mentorship is powerful. We all have something to learn.

This past summer we held 6 adventures for girls ages 12-14, and there was one 13 year old girl who joined us for the first time on a river float adventure that captured my attention. She was more quiet and reserved than the rest of the group and she seemed unsure if she wanted to be present. With her unchanging stern look on her face, we embarked on the river float adventure. With every paddle stroke her shell began to wither, she smiled, laughed, contributed and shared problem-solving strategies with the bigger group. She embraced the moment and became vulnerable. In her feedback survey, her top three takeaways from the adventure were “1. You have to speak up. 2. You have to put in your ideas. 3. You have to help others.”

As a naturally quiet leader myself, I am constantly reminded of her words of wisdom. I can be reserved in formal settings, questioning my role in participating, and often find myself being vulnerable to embrace the moment. It is in these moments where I state my ideas and contribute without hesitation, that I grow and gain more from the experience than I would if I didn’t put myself in these kind of situations. Potentially there is that quiet, unsure, second guessing, girl inside of all us. I have found that ultimately the brave and courageous girl inside of me, although she may be afraid sometimes, is thankful for those moments that are hard and where her shell is broken down. It is phenomenal to observe how WHI adventures powerfully unfold for each girl, especially while knowing there are mentors on our trips who can relate to and connect with the girls experience and support her through its entirety.

What’s your favorite way to adventure?

There is something special about hitting the open road with a car filled with adventure gear. My favorite way to adventure is backpacking into a high mountain lake. Jumping into a snowmelt lake after a hot day on the trail is my special place. I love adventuring with close girlfriends, sharing stories and solving the world’s problems one step at a time. Adventures with my family are always great for the stories that are shared around the fire and new memories formed with the younger generations. I am currently pregnant and expecting my first child in July! I’m pretty sure my new favorite way to adventure will be any type of adventure with our little one. Experiencing adventures, big and small, with them and through their eyes will fill me with immense wonder, excitement, laughter, and profound joy. I look forward to reliving some of my childhood memories, visiting our favorite spots, and creating new family adventure traditions.

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.

My most challenging moment in the outdoors was when I was snowmobiling for the first time and had a huge accident. I was nervous, scared if you will! I had never snowmobiled before and had always been a non-motorized type of recreationalist. I wanted to try something new and so I hopped onto the snowmobile, ready to go, death grip and all. We had snowmobiled 25 miles and then stopped for lunch. After lunch, we had to rev up the engines to make it up a steep hill and get back to our path. I was the last person to go, and as I was nearing the top I hit a bump, lost control of the snowmobile and fell off. The snowmobile ran over my right shin and my foot got stuck in the chain for a brief second. I was in complete shock. My leg was distorted, not broken, but didn’t look right. Luckily, there were a few EMTs in our group and they were able to assess my injury and recommend next steps. They said the only way I could get out was to get back on the snowmobile and ride out. I remember saying, “there is NO WAY I am getting back on that machine!” I was now terrified and in severe pain, but I didn’t have another choice. I had to get back to our cabin and see if I needed to go to the hospital. Reluctantly, I sat back on to the snowmobile, death grip to the max, and crept along at 5-10 mph until we were back to the cars. I had never felt so much relief as when I stepped off the snowmobile that eventful day.

After such a painful and scary experience resulting in many doctor visits to treat an internal wound, this incident taught me that I can do hard things even when I think I can’t. I recognized that although trying new things and stepping outside my comfort zone can be scary and cause me physical and mental pain, this is how I continue to grow. When I advocate for myself in hard times, things may not go how I would like, but sharing my pain and needs is critical in order to get my needs met. I am grateful for how knowledgeable and helpful the EMTs in our group were in treating me at the site. I am also very thankful for my heavier than all else boots that somehow saved my right foot from being torn off. I will forever keep these boots!

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?

The benefits are numerous! Each girl is coming to WHI with a unique skill set, strengths and abilities, and perspectives on who she is and how she interacts with the world. We see different degrees of outdoor skill level, from girls who often hike and camp with their families and have all the necessary gear, to girls who have never been to the more iconic hiking destinations in our community and don’t have the adequate footwear for a 4 hour hike. The outdoors is a place where every girl can come as she is to embrace the moment and leave with a new knowledge of who she can be, what is important to her, and her place in the world.

Some of our biggest feedback from girls over the past year has focused on friendship. Girls on WHI adventures, no matter if it was a 4 hour hike or an overnight backpacking trip, meet a new friend. They connect with another girl (or a few) in their age group outside their day-to-day circle, and create a new, meaningful friendship. Many girls return on adventures with a friend they met from a previous adventure. Their friendship began in the outdoors and continues to flourish through adventure. Connecting in ways where friendships are cultivated is impactful.

We see that girls are trying something for the first time and stepping outside their comfort zone in small and profound ways. Girls are saying “yes!” to adventure and in turn being, vulnerable and courageous. We create a “brave space” where challenge by choice is the norm. We create a space to support the pursuit of each challenge. These adventures instill a strong belief in each girls sense of self and abilities.

On all WHI adventures we embrace a “cell phone free zone”. A place to disconnect to reconnect. We have heard from girls on our adventures that they really appreciate participating in an environment where cell phones aren’t the norm. Where personal interaction, exploration, game playing, laughing, and being present take precedent instead of technology. This environment, no matter how brief, provides a simple, grounded, space for girls to be themselves and not be judged by their “likes”, “follows” or by what photo they post. They are actively engaged in the current moment and soaking up every bit of nature and connecting to themselves and others in ways that may not seem to come as natural as scrolling through their phone. This environment also provides space to talk about our relationships with technology and ways to establish healthy tech habits.

Simply stated, the benefits of outdoor exploration are vast. Every person benefits in unique ways and many times gains more than what the were expecting. You never know what new insights and experiences saying “yes!” to adventure will provide you! It’s always an adventure!