Wilderness Youth Project Origin: 20 days of connection

Wilderness Youth Project Origin: 20 Days of Connection

By Sharon Tollefson | Published October 31, 2019

Thank you for playing along as we spent the last 20 days featuring the beauty of nature connection. To continue our celebration of 20 years of Wilderness Youth Project, travel down memory lane with us to the first days… long before 521 school kids got to do WYP, before we organized our summer camp registration with a weighted lottery, before we could run into people we don’t know at Saturday Farmer’s wearing WYP tee shirts and hats.

Three employees, a one room office in Carpinteria, 16 volunteers, and a borrowed van from Easy Lift is what got us started 20 years ago. The biggest constant from 1999 through 2019 is connection. Dan Fontaine, our current executive director says we are in the “business of connection.” That’s true now and it is what we were founded on when Warren Brush and Cyndi Harvan started with the simple idea that kids need purpose and want adventure. They need to feel the wind in their hair, they need to feel vibrantly alive. 

One of our classic early destinations was Zaca Lake.  On the second night of each trip, we would wait by the fire until it was dark and late. Then we would walk out together, quietly and with a little trepidation, to the regal Sycamore tree with strong limbs stretching high over the lake. One by one we would all climb out, about ten feet above the water, and shout out as we jumped. We’d shout one word, something we wanted more of for ourselves or for the world.  I heard words like JOY, PEACE, FORGIVENESS. The first group named the tree the “power tree.” They said “When you jump from that tree in the dark, you come out a different person. You come out more alive and more powerful.” That tree was legend. Actually, every child that jumped from it became legend, at least for a moment. Some made it look easy and others sat in that tree for a long time before finding the courage to jump. But every single person that jumped  felt the awe and reverence of that moment. Every one of us, in the space between the tree and the water, understood our own powerful place in this world.

At Wilderness Youth Project, we still believe in the inherent abilities of each child. We know that every child needs to have this profound and simple discovery: “I am a part of this world. I belong.” We are not separate and we are neither above or below any other life that exists around us.

To support kids towards that discovery, we must let them wander, play, seek, and find. To do that we let them climb trees and jump off high ledges into deep water. We get in with them and get pounded by the power of an ocean wave, we slide down snow banks into icy cold water.  While you’re here, take a second and google image search “victory posture.” See those arms open wide, head back, that strong and open stance? That’s the after picture of a kid (you, or me, or anyone) who has let nature in- the one a WYP kid drew in this picture:

Connection happens when two people sit and have a conversation. Connection happens when a child floats in the river for the first time. Connection happens when sticks are twirled together to make the spark of a fire. This connection teaches us mutual indebtedness, the idea that I am in debt to you as much as you are in debt to me. And then connection lets us know: I belong here, to myself, to this place, to these people. I’ve spent twenty years growing with WYP. Today, I am proud to see the core of connection remain at the heart of Wilderness Youth Project. I am grateful to Warren and Cyndi for planting the seed 20 years ago and I am grateful for everyone who has watered it or shined their light on it since. As future generations and nature continue to beckon, I’ll go on being here, building the connection. I hope you’ll be with me.

Sharon Tollefson,

Program Director (now)

First WYP employee (then)

2 thoughts on “Wilderness Youth Project Origin: 20 days of connection”

  1. Sharon, this is so beautifully written. It reminds me of how lucky I am that my parents immersed us in nature while growing up. I hope every child can have that connection. Here’s to many many more years of WYP!

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