SHIFT Emerging Leaders and local athletes discuss what it means to be a modern day activist. Photo by Peter Lobozzo

2018 SHIFT Awards: Connecting Public Lands and Public Health!

This article was written by Sarah Parker. Sarah works as a Youth Leadership Coordinator for the North Cascades Institute. 

Last October, I had the pleasure of representing North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures (YLA) at the SHIFT Festival in Jackson, Wyoming. This year, the festival explored the health benefits of time spent outside by engaging leaders and innovators at the forefront of the Nature Rx movement. Some of these leaders were highlighted through SHIFT Awards and assessed for the following criteria: impact, innovation, and replicability. I am proud to share that YLA — which guides high school students on 8-day and 12-day canoeing and backpacking courses in the North Cascades — was nominated as a 2018 SHIFT Awards Finalist for Youth Engagement! While working towards the program goal of empowering the next-generation of conservation leaders, YLA leverages the health benefits of time spent outside for diverse youth.

Christopher Chalaka (of Outdoor Asian), Gabriel Sul, and Me (Sarah Parker)

How is Youth Leadership Adventures connected to health?
At SHIFT, Dr. Michael Suk of the Geisinger Musculoskeletal Institute broke down the components of health and wellness: 10% of health is dependent on health care, 30% on genetics, 40% on individual behavior, and 20% on social and environmental factors. Let me repeat:
40% of an individual’s health is based on behavior! Studies show that spending time outside leads to weight reduction, lower heart rate, and a sense of focus and overall well-being. During YLA courses, participants engage in physical activity in nature each day, eat healthy meals, and develop a support network with other members of their group.

When we hiked up Desolation Peak I thought I was never going to reach the top. Reaching our goal and touching the fire lookout was one of the most powerful, empowering experiences I’ve ever had.

— Illiana, 2017 Participant

Participants consistently report positive changes in their mental health–some even report that the anxiety and/or depression they experience on a daily basis is alleviated while they are on their course. Clearly, healthy behavior includes spending time outside. Post-course, alumni are connected to free next-step opportunities in the outdoors including the Northwest Youth Leadership Summit, Ambassadors and internships and often continue these healthy behaviors in their own lives.

Dr. Michael Suk, photo credit: Peter Lobozzo

As Dr. Suk reported, 20% of health and wellness depends on social and environmental factors. Our health is so intimately linked to the health of our environment — we can’t have one without the other. We must conserve the environment to ensure that ALL people have access to trees, clean air, water, plants and wildlife. To do this, people must recognize the value of nature by first experiencing it. YLA is dedicated to engaging motivated youth from all backgrounds and identities in the outdoors. Through in-classroom recruitment, offering participants full and partial scholarships, providing transportation and gear, and offering introductory level courses, YLA engages students who are not represented by the dominant narrative in outdoor recreation. Among our participants this past season, 63% were students of color, 60% qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, and 77% participated in their first-ever outdoor summer program with YLA. Hopefully, by engaging youth of ALL backgrounds in outdoor programs, we can support a diverse and passionate next generation of environmental stewards to conserve the environment and, therefore, our health.

The Beautiful Tetons!

One of my highlights in attending SHIFT was learning about so many other incredible individuals and organizations who were represented at this year’s festival. First, Portland, OR based organization, Soul River Runs Deep, connects inner city youth and veterans to the outdoors through fly-fishing trips in some of the continents most majestic locations. Soul River Runs Deep believes that ‘connecting with nature is a powerful outlet to reduce stress, find focus, sharpen self-awareness, embrace spirituality, and develop positive values beneficial to both the individual and community.’

Next, Park Rx America, based out of Washington DC, aims to ‘decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship, by virtue of prescribing Nature during the routine delivery of healthcare.’

Finally, I learned from a number of determined individuals who are using their energy to push for equitable nature based healing opportunities within their communities–follow @josebilingue, @naturechola, @meliseymo, @indigenouswomenhike, @queernature, @outdoorasian, @unlikelyhikers, @nativewomenswilderness, @vasu_sojitra, @mynameisbam on Instagram to learn more.

I left SHIFT feeling encouraged by all of the positive work that is being done and totally convinced of the health benefits of time spent outside!

Leave a Comment