How Venture Outdoors is Making a Difference

Photo: Venture Outdoors

How Venture Outdoors Is Removing Barriers and Training Leaders

Through a combination of education, equipment and empowerment, Pittsburgh-based Venture Outdoors is removing barriers to entry for anyone interested in engaging with the outside world. 

For many, this engagement can be intimidating. Without access or exposure through sports, civic groups like Scouts, or familial mentorship, nature presents a minefield of anxiety and roadblocks that work to degrade any enthusiasm someone may have for exploring a new outdoor activity. According to Ebony Montgomery, Venture Outdoors Director of Development & Communications, the nonprofit works every day on combating these problems.

“No equipment?” she asks. “We have that covered. Don’t know what to do? We have educators who can teach you everything you need to know to get started. Afraid to go out into nature alone? We offer a variety of programs in small, physically distanced groups.” 

This focus on empowerment and education wasn’t always the outfit’s northstar. In the 20 years since the nonprofit’s launch in 2001, Montgomery notes how its focus has changed from simply getting people outside because it’s fun, “to really looking at what is preventing people from getting outdoors, and working to eliminate as many blocks as we can.”  

That’s an important distinction. One presupposes a prior knowledge, or willingness to engage in nature, while the other removes that supposition and works to help anyone to find a way to engage with—and to benefit from—the outdoors. 

In addition to easing trepidation and lowering the bar for entry, Venture Outdoors also does everything it can to offer year-round programming—Montgomery notes its slew of past offerings, ranging from kayaking (Kayak Pittsburgh), standup paddleboarding, canoeing, and fishing, to hiking, camping, biking, birding, nature photography, rock climbing, trail running, plus an outdoor bootcamp, outdoor book club and summer camps.

A man helps a boy fish in the river Photo: Venture Outdoors

In 2014, Venture Outdoors along with six funding partners began the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab, a free program aimed at K-8 students with limited access to outdoor engagement opportunities. In the seven years since, the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab has grown from 70 students to over 250, with 15 funding partners.

The Youth Outdoor Learning Lab teaches kids how to bike (sometimes for the first time), kayak, fish, geocache, snowshoe, build fires and outdoor shelters, practice first aid, and explore the outside world. According to Venture Outdoors Youth and Family Director Lo Zemanek, special field trips include BMX biking, horseback riding, caving, rock climbing, and overnight camping.

While these early opportunities for outdoor discoveries have obvious benefits in the short term, the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab goes beyond that. “Over the tenure of the program,” Zemanek explains, “[more than] 150 middle school students have graduated from the program’s youth outdoor leadership track, which is focused on providing them with skills to become outdoor leaders in their neighborhood.” That development means that kids who graduate from the program become long-term advocates for the outdoors—with the skills to mentor those around them.

“We adapted the outdoor leadership training we deliver to our staff and volunteers to gear it toward middle school students,” Zemanek adds, “teaching them group dynamics, leadership styles, and more.” 

In spring 2020, Venture Outdoors and the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab, like endless other organizations and individuals, were faced with the pandemic-driven conundrum of how to help an isolated and disconnected population get outside, while remaining cautious. They did what a lot of us did: They moved online, adapting outdoor experiences to bring them inside so that the weekly learning wouldn’t drop off.

“We would pack and deliver kits with learning materials to homes so kids could participate in hands-on, live virtual learning,” says Zemanek. “They planted seedlings, constructed and tested parachutes, built outdoor shelters in their own backyard, learned how to build fire structures using popsicle sticks at their desk, practiced first aid skills with a personal kit, and exercised through nature yoga poses.” 

While in-person learning has resumed with the new school year, the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab retains the ability to deliver high-quality lessons virtually.

As with Venture Outdoors as a whole, the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab has evolved over time, moving from a “one and done” experiential model of trying activities a single time (only to then move onto another single activity at the next meeting), to one of holistic outdoor training. “We wanted to develop relationships with youth, families, schools, and communities to create a longer-lasting appreciation for and love of the outdoors.” says Zamanek.

In the future, the Youth Outdoor Learning Lab hopes to move into other areas and neighborhoods throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania, offering its programs to a larger population of youth and “aiming to increase family engagement in the program, by hosting more family-focused outdoor experiences.” says Zamanek.

The other area of expansion makes good on the “lab” name, integrating fields of play with fields of study, infusing more educational components into the learning, including STEM projects and science inquiry. The intention there: Leverage this newfound (and sustained) engagement in nature with the exploration of greater career opportunities within the outdoor and environmental industries. 

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All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.