For this installment of “Nonprofit of the Month,” we sat down and chatted with Elevate Youth’s Founder and Executive Director Alec “Griz” Griswold. Elevate Youth is a nonprofit organization operating in the Boston and greater-New England area that uses the outdoors and positive adult mentorship to empower underprivileged kids. Griz came to the realization that so many kids in his community did not have access to the outdoors and were missing out on all the health benefits and positive life lessons learned from being outside. EY seeks to highlight and correct the severity of this inequity.
Flylords: So, how did Elevate Youth start?
EY: Elevate Youth (EY) started as a result of my experiences in the outdoor industry but most importantly from a relationship with my little brother Miguel (through Big Brothers Big Sisters). Growing up, I was lucky to be surrounded by nature and I knew that the outdoors was going to be an essential part of my life. I moved to Boston back in 2011 and shortly thereafter signed up for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Miguel and I were matched, and we started doing fun outdoor activities together. I vividly remember asking him one day, “hey how about we go for a hike!?” He responded, “what do you mean? Like just go walk around in the woods.” Something at the moment clicked in my head–Miguel did not have the context to understand the benefits of nature activities, and I realized that there are many barriers to accessing nature and the outdoors for those in underserved communities. From seeing his growth and excitement about outdoor sports (especially fishing), I knew I had to find a way to bring these experiences to more kids.
Flylords: Explain Elevate Youth’s mission.
EY: Our mission is simple: Empower youth from underserved communities through year-round outdoor experiences coupled with the support of consistent adult role models. Essentially, we introduce and provide continual outdoor recreation for our youth and incorporate supportive adults, to create a safe place where our youth can realize their full potential.
Flylords: How many kids has Elevate Youth mentored/shared outdoor experiences with?
EY: Since the beginning of 2018 we have served over 400 kids, a majority of which have attended multiple outings. Our model is cohort based and focuses on creating the habit of spending time in nature. In order to create a habit, there needs to be multiple opportunities to explore.
Flylords: How does Elevate Youth use the outdoors to mentor kids in underserved neighborhoods?
EY: We use local parks, public lands, and accessible waterways as the setting for many of our outings. We believe it is imperative to use outdoor spaces that are close to our kids’ neighborhoods to educate them that these places belong to everyone.
The outdoors is the perfect place to build relationships as communication, teamwork and resiliency are inherently built into outdoor activities. Moreover, kids living in urban environments are not getting enough time in natural green spaces and this has many negative repercussions. Author Richard Louv, coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” and we are creating avenues to combat this reality. Providing opportunities for kids to explore nature is essential in ensuring their overall health and wellness.
Flylords: What does the average Elevate Youth outing look like?
EY: We provide a lot of different outdoor outings (i.e. hiking, fishing, backcountry yoga, sailing, horseback riding, kayaking, surfing, climbing, and more). Let’s take a fishing outing as an example: A typical fishing outing involves a group of 12 youth from our partner organizations along with 2 EY instructors and at least 2 volunteers/mentors. Our Lead instructor picks up the group in our van, and we head to a river, pond, or ocean. We start every outing with a team building exercise and make sure everyone feels comfortable in that particular setting. We teach the basic skills, go over different techniques, discuss the fishery and outline the importance of catch and release, and ultimately allow our kids to learn at their own pace. One of the most important parts of all our outings is the group debrief at the end of the outing, where youth recognize each other’s accomplishments and we share our favorite moments of the outing as well as discuss various challenges. Fishing is one of our most popular activities and seeing the eyes of kid when they catch their first fish is the absolute best!
Flylords: The Elevate Youth experience seems like a fun, enjoyable time—is there an educational aspect to it, or is mostly about the mentoring/getting kids outside?
EY: As we have grown, so has our curriculum. In addition to our outings, we provide enrichment sessions that focus on environmental education, strengthening social & emotional skills, and leadership. Experiential and hands-on learning is at the heart of all our outings and enrichment sessions. As part of our mission we are in the business of instilling the importance of green spaces for everyone. As a result, we aim to create the next generation of environmental stewards. Nature is the best classroom.
Flylords: Volunteers are essential for most nonprofit organizations. Describe the importance of volunteers at Elevate Youth.
EY: Our volunteers are incredible. I believe one of the reasons we have such great volunteers is that they come with a passion for the outdoors and are thrilled to share that with our youth. We have over 80 volunteers that range from our Board, development committee, outing support, and mentors. Our outdoor mentor program was just recently launched in conjunction with the local Patagonia store. It is truly a unique group mentoring program that allows for the relationship between mentor and youth to grow throughout the year. The simple act of being a supportive adult has tremendous positive impact on our youth.
Flylords: I’m sure the kids love these experiences and gain invaluable life lessons. But for you and other volunteers, sharing your time with these kids and witnessing the happiness must be a very powerful and rewarding feeling, too. Right?
EY: It is a shared experience – our main focus is providing transformative experiences for our youth and by being an active participant in this experience the adults feel and see this transformation. I’ve had numerous volunteers come up to me after an outing and express pure joy. There is something truly powerful about sharing new experiences in the outdoors with kids.
Flylords: Can you tell us about some specific Elevate Youth stories?
EY: I have some great stories but I will never forget our first outing, a ski trip at Wachusett Mountain. Jade, who is an EY veteran now, was very nervous about this new sport. She did not believe she could do it, but throughout the day we had instructors and volunteers work with her and encourage her to progress. By the end of day, she was connecting turns with a big smile on her face. She came up to me as we were getting ready to load up in the van and head back to Boston and said, “this was the best day of my life… I really conquered my fears.” Needless to say, my eyes were not dry, and I knew that Elevate Youth had the chance to be an impactful force on the youth we serve.
Flylords: Does Elevate Youth have any big upcoming projects or plans?
EY: Entering our third full year of operation, we are focused on maintaining the best quality outdoor programming for our youth. Our aim is to add two new school partners in the fall and continue working with all our current youth. Our goal is to reach and consistently work with over 800 youth in the next three years. Moreover, we are forging partnerships with other outdoor organizations & businesses to create an avenue for our older youth to find meaningful internships & employment in the outdoor industry. In order to affect meaningful change, there needs to be collaboration between nonprofits, communities, families, schools, and government. We are not in the business of one & done nature experiences–rather we aim to instill a love for the outdoors through multi-year programming and support.
Flylords: How has the recent Coronavirus craziness affected EYB?
EYB: This is such a difficult time for everyone right now, but especially for kids in underserved communities. In this time of isolation & uncertainty, it is our duty to step up and be there for the communities we serve. Now more than ever our kids need outdoor time but for those in urban environments this can be a challenge. Since we have had to suspend all programming, we have pivoted into creating a virtual platform for kids to access. In collaboration with other organizations and our partners, we are focused on providing fun, nature themed activities, social & emotional resources, movement & workout exercises, as well mindfulness activities. I encourage everyone to find ways to volunteer in their local community in this time on great need.
Flylords: How can Flylords’ readers get involved with Elevate Youth?
EY: If you live in the New England area please reach out to us and we would love to get you out on a trip to see what we do firsthand. For those not in New England, I encourage you to find a youth mentoring organization in your area and get involved–advocate for getting underserved youth outdoors! The most important thing we can do is share our passion for the outdoors with the next generation–if they don’t care about nature why would they want to protect it.