“Cultivating a Supportive Community”: My summer as a Youth Leadership Adventures intern

By Urvy Prasad
Summer 2019 North Cascades Institute YLA Intern

Youth Leadership Adventures (YLA) is a program offered by the North Cascades Institute that that offers high school age students the opportunity to spend twelve days in the North Cascades NationIl Park doing backpacking or canoeing while learning about leadership, natural history, climate change and environmental justice.

This summer, working as an intern for this unique, transformative program, was one of the most impactful summers I have ever had.

There are many reasons why Summer 2019 was one of the best but also one of the most challenging periods of my life.

The first reason is that I got an opportunity that I had never gotten before — a chance to spend an entire summer in the mountains interning for an outdoor adventure program for teenagers. I was going to get to live in a small town next to a lake, get the chance to explore the ecosystems of the North Cascades, meet lots of cool new people, and most importantly, it was going to be my first experience working as an environmental educator.

As exciting as all this sounded to me back in May, when I got the news that I was chosen for the YLA internship, I was also incredibly nervous. I had never done something like this before!

Growing up in New Delhi, India, even though the natural beauty of my country’s various landscapes was never too far away, I had still never had the opportunities to explore it intimately through activities like hiking, canoeing or camping. I had never been to an outdoor summer camp and I certainly did not have any of the gear needed to survive in the backcountry.

But what I did have was this: the desire to try something new and to work towards my goals of becoming an environmental educator and making environmental education more accessible to different kinds of people. And even though I hadn’t had this kind of access to the outdoors growing up, I was getting the chance to provide it to young people — many of whom don’t have the privilege to recreate and learn in the outdoors. This was enough to bring me all the way from Seattle to the small town of Diablo, Washington in the foothills of the North Cascades mountains.

For better or for worse, the challenges I would be facing during the summer had just begun. As eager I was to learn and to push myself, I was also incredibly overwhelmed by the barrage of new experiences and information I had to take in during training. From learning how to teach lessons to using bear spray to canoeing. All these skills were alien to me at the beginning of my internship and I often found myself being completely exhausted at the end of the day. I also often felt isolated and homesick living and working in a primarily white space, far away from my community back in Seattle.

The most challenging days for me were the day the staff received canoe training and my first day backpacking during the YLA staff field training trip. Canoe training was my first time in a canoe and the fact that it was an incredibly windy day out on Lake Diablo did not particularly help! Similarly, the first time I backpacked during staff training was incredibly difficult- I was constantly stumbling and very slow, I tripped a lot, and my shoulders and back hurt from not knowing how to properly pack and adjust a 50-pound backpack.

However, despite all of the difficulties, the support and encouragement I received from my coworkers not just within the YLA team but also from the rest of staff at the North Cascades Institute, and the relationships I was forming with them and this new landscape pushed me to keep going and trying my hardest.

My first time backpacking! I very quickly learned that my hiking poles belonged in my hands instead of being neatly tucked away in my pack.

Fast forward to two months later: all of my hard work did pay off! I started to feel more at home in the mountains, lakes, and forests of the North Cascades. I got better at backpacking and was able to assist the YLA students with packing and adjusting their packs by the end of the summer. My hiking pace also improved considerably (however, I still tripped a lot) and I felt comfortable enough in the outdoors to help create a safe space for students to learn and experience new things.

I also learned a lot about being an outdoor educator during this period of time. I made my first ever lesson plan with the help of my supervisor and also got to teach it to the students during the second YLA trip. I learned how to support students who were feeling overwhelmed and stressed by all that they were experiencing for the first time and how to make them feel at home in the mountains.

I realized just how important cultivating a supportive community — not just with students but also with my co-instructors — is to deal with all the challenges that being in the backcountry for twelve days presents.

In a lot of ways, my journey as an intern and instructor for the YLA program mirrored the journeys of the students I got to work with this summer. I had thrust myself into this new and challenging environment and had to figure out how to navigate the previously uncharted territory of backpacking and canoeing, just like my students had.

And just as I learned how to be a better instructor over this period, the students learned how to be better leaders and support themselves and each other through challenging hikes and long days.

YLA Group 4 “Nat Nugs!” on our challenge day, hiking from Rainbow Meadows over Bowan Pass to 6-mile Campsite

Looking back at the past few months, I have realized that even my own success was a community effort. I know that I have already mentioned how crucial the encouragement and motivation from my fellow Youth Leadership Adventures staff was to my success as an intern but seriously, there was no way I could have crossed that log bridge at Fireweed Camp during staff training without them cheering me on.

A lot of the personal growth I have achieved this summer is owed to all the important conversations I’ve had with my supervisors and co-instructors. I also found so much support and inspiration in the students we had this summer: from students supporting each other during our most tiring hikes and continuing to hike even through countless blisters and aches and pains, to students talking about taking what they learned out in the backcountry to their communities back home and working towards positive change. Turns out we are capable of doing so much more when we have others to rely on!

How could I have kept myself (far right) sane in the August heat with horseflies all around me trying to suck my blood without my co-instructors Nicola (far left) and Addie (middle)?

I have learned so much in the past few months — about community, about myself, about being a good educator — and I feel as if I will be reflecting on the experiences from this summer for months to come. I cannot thank the North Cascades Institute and the Youth Leadership Adventures Program enough for giving me and other youth from communities who normally do not have access to outdoor spaces the opportunity to learn more about the landscapes we inhabit. I am so thankful for all of us being able to create a space where we can forge relationships with nature on our own terms.

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