Wilderness Kids Alexandria provides life-enriching experiences in nature to teenagers from under-resourced families in Alexandria, Virginia.
We set our efforts upon a foundation of seven values that inform everything we do.
Nature is Home: We are at home in the natural world. Nature nourishes us physically, mentally and spiritually; in turn, we take care of nature.
Equity in Community: Ours is a diverse community that values equity and respectful inclusion. Equity refers to both fairness and ownership--we each take ownership of our community, and we simultaneously claim the benefits and accept the responsibilities that come with such ownership. We lead and we serve in our communities.
Curiosity: What is this tree? What stars will I find in the sky tonight? Which bird is calling now? We seek the answers to these questions not because the answers are inherently important, but because the curiosity, observation, and learning that leads to those answers yields a lifetime love of learning.
Quality: How can I build a fire with no match? How can I climb that rock face? How can I best tie a tarp to keep myself dry in the rain? Developing skills is about cultivating an attention to detail, an appreciation for quality. A fire well-built, a rock-face skillfully climbed, or a tarp well constructed translates throughout life to quality and confidence in all of one's efforts.
Mindfulness: Behind everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, there is a blank canvas upon which those sensations are etched. By taking the time to be quiet and slow down, we become better tuned to the worlds around us and within us, and come to the understanding that silence and calm can foster peace in our own lives.
Gratitude: We are thankful for the people and places in our lives, even in hard times. We take note of how practicing thankfulness can change our perspective on life's ups and downs.
Creative Expression: We express ourselves in innumerable ways--through, art, poetry, prose, photography, music and more. In this way, we find our voice, gain confidence, and learn to share our ideas with the world.
In June 2021, the Alexandria Health Department and the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria released the results of a study prioritizing health needs in the City. The group defined 10 priority areas and, among those, 3 urgent priorities - poverty, housing, and mental health.
A primary strategy to solve the mental health crises is to "expand access to free and low-cost physical activity." At our most basic level, WKA is doing this work by getting kids into nature and instilling in them a passion for hiking, paddling, climbing, and other outdoor activities that will serve their mental and physical health for a lifetime.
The City also developed a "Children & Youth Master Plan 2025." A key priority of that plan is to build "Developmental Assets," which the CYMP further defines as four items: Support, Empowerment, Constructive Use of Time, and Boundaries & Expectations.
WKA helps build
We build a supportive community of adults and youth who share their skills, knowledge, and wisdom with one another.
We empower our students with new ideas, new skills, new ways of being in the world, all in the context of a diverse, equitable and inclusive community.
We create incredibly constructive uses of time. During their WKA outings, students get exercise and fresh air, they get time to unwind and experience quiet, they use time to learn new skills, overcome fears, and rise to challenges. They build friendships and community that are independent of phones, screens, and tech.
Finally, being outdoors, in community, requires each of us to understand our boundaries and our expectations. We expect students to behave respectfully and safely. Students learn boundaries by learning what is safe and what is unsafe in rock climbing or kayaking, what is appropriate and not in Leave No Trace camping, and what is respectful and what is not in group conversation.
What the Research Says:
Nature's good for us and we don't get enough of it.
The City of Alexandria is not alone in recognizing the value of physical activity for young people and, specifically, the power of time in nature to improve physical and mental health. The Children & Nature Network reports "On average, today’s kids spend up to 44 hours per week in front of a screen, and less than 10 minutes a day playing outdoors. And for too many kids, access to nature is determined by race, income, ability and postal code."
Here are the findings of just one study among many that support the work that WKA does. The study focused on week long programs and, of course, WKA is offering afternoon programs, day long programs and multi-week summer programs. We hope for and expect similar results:
Week-long wilderness-based program promotes developmental assets for under-resourced urban youth
"A group of under-resourced urban youth, after participating in a week-long wilderness program, reported significantly improved internal and external assets. The greatest improvements were in the areas of positive identity, use of time, and learning. The positive outcomes persisted over time and applied across gender and race/ethnicity. The program combined nature-based experiences with positive, caring adult relationships."
-Norton & Watt, 2014. Exploring the impact of a wilderness-based positive youth development program for urban youth. Access study.