YLA students camping in the North Cascades.

“Why I Do The Work” : A Testimony from Youth Leadership Adventure’s Elle Gasperini

This Article was written by Elle Gasperini. Elle is the newest member of the Youth Leadership Adventures team as our Youth Leadership Coordinator. Enjoy her perspective on why she does the work to engage young people in the outdoors.

I was given the opportunity to go on my first camping trip when I was 15.  It was a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a wilderness area with seemingly endless lakes connected by forests of pines, birch, cedar, aspen, and tamarack.  Travel can only be done by canoe, as the French fur traders and Ojibwe traveled. The paths between lakes are the same ones that have been walked for centuries. The pace that comes with this form of travel forces you to slow down and notice the things around you.  At first glance, all those lakes and trees are a simple landscape, but looking more slowly, there is so much more. So many shades of green and blue, reflections of rocks on water, colorful lichen and wildflowers. Through this slower, simpler pace, I found a connection to the natural world, the people around me, and my own body in a way that I struggle to find in fast paced, every-day life.

I continue to seek  ways to feel that same level of connection, in the backcountry and out of it, as well as working to support others in gaining similar experiences. I was able to do this as an Outward Bound Instructor and Course Director, supporting over 550 days of student learning in the backcountry of Minnesota and Texas.  Through this work, I learned so many skills that have benefited me in all aspects of life: not being afraid to make mistakes or confront the hard stuff and awareness of ways to use my strengths to the fullest. I also saw the students I worked with develop these same skills.  Time with small groups of humans in the backcountry has helped me understand the power of empathy and awareness of our impact on others and the world, which have become two of my central goals as an educator.

Elle hiking with students in Big Bend National Park.

I am an outdoor and environmental educator because I feel the outdoor classroom offers conditions for people to come together and connect in a way that is harder and harder to do in everyday life filled with cell phones and constant entertainment. I also value the outdoor classroom because it allows students to offer their whole selves and find skills and abilities outside those valued in a purely academic setting. In my experience, when students—or any of us for that matter—are rooted in a place of confidence and self-expression, we can engage in learning in a much deeper and more meaningful way.

Elle on portage in the Boundry Waters Canoe Area.
Elle teaching a lesson on river morphology on the Rio Grande

Youth Leadership Adventures (YLA) excites me because the program fulfills the North Cascades Institute mission to inspire and empower environmental stewardship so fully. Students gain leadership skills and are inspired through the strong connections with fellow students that develop over the course of the trips.

This empowerment and inspiration is amplified when there is a diversity of voices and perspectives being represented. There are so many important perspectives that need stronger representation in the outdoor industry and I am excited to be a part of YLA’s work to include those demographics in our student population. I also feel that a deeper understanding of how the world works and the impacts humans are having on it is an important topic for us all, and am excited about the YLA curriculum focused on natural history and climate change. This summer we will be running 12 day courses titled “Science & Sustainability.” Students deepen their understanding of the North Cascades, learning about the animals, plants and ecosystems, as well as the historic and current relationships that have shaped the landscape.  

I believe that becoming more aware and intentional about our impacts on the natural world is one of the most important ways we can respond to the challenges our world currently faces.”

This curriculum helps students dig into those concepts, as well as start thinking about how they can use their voices and leadership to inspire change in their local communities.

YLA group hiking with two USFS climbing rangers along the slopes of Mt. Baker.

Although my first trip lead me down the path to becoming an environmental educator, that is not the only path or goal of a trip like YLA. The beauty of these experiences is that they have different impacts on different people, and students are guiding the learning just as much as the instructors. Through my work I hope to create opportunities for students to have an influential experience in the way my first trip was for me, and am excited to continue learning from all of our students this summer the wide variety of ways an experience like this can be carried forward.

You can help students attend Youth Leadership Adventures summer courses by making a donation during our Give BIG campaign. Learn more at ncascades.org/givebig.

Thanks to Elle for sharing her inspiration to educate and dedication to YLA!


  1. Jodi Broughton

    Thanks so much, Elle, for helping young people find their voice and become leaders!

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