Lesford Duncan is no stranger to the power of the outdoors. Before he joined the team at Outdoor Outreach, he had his own memorable experiences reconnecting with himself out among nature. Whether it was hitting the trail, climbing big peaks (like Mount Kilimanjaro), or simply taking a moment to step outside—it was transformative. And he knew he wanted to share it with others.
“I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of resilience and healing just by being outdoors,” says Duncan, who is the senior director of programs at the organization. “I wanted to spark that interest in discovery and exploration in youth and help them also experience their own healing and resilience.”
That led him to Outdoor Outreach, which launched in 2001 to connect San Diego’s underserved youth to the outdoors. They do this through a wide range of activities such as hiking, rock climbing, surfing, and biking—but the impact goes beyond an extra dose of energy and exercise. Their programs foster unique opportunities for kids to reconnect with themselves, learn leadership skills and teamwork skills, and even learn about environmental stewardship, all by spending time outside.
Those lessons are integrated into all of their programs, Duncan says. While each one is tied to an activity like rock climbing or kayaking, the programs are really centered on the outcome they’re hoping to achieve with the kids—building trust, confidence, communication, or even healing from traumatic events. Duncan notes that over 91 percent of the youth they work with later say that getting outdoors helped them overcome some of the trauma brought on by the pandemic.
The organization reaches youth from all over San Diego County, but mainly focuses on communities that typically do not have easy access to outdoor spaces. Duncan says: “We see that youth coming from low-income communities, especially youth of color, often have less access due to a number of factors, so it’s important for us to try and bridge that gap.”
He explains that the accessibility gap is twofold. For many families there are physical barriers, like a lack of parks or recreational spaces within their community. In some cases, the local parks that do exist are either poorly maintained or are crime-heavy and discourage youth and their families from spending time there. On top of that, some families don’t have easy or immediate access to transportation to take them to recreational spaces outside their neighborhood.
Duncan also says the lack of representation can be a major factor: “A lot of youth don’t see themselves represented in a lot of outdoor activities like climbing or surfing. Part of what we do here is strive to increase that representation—not only by creating those initial experiences, but to also introduce them to our leadership programs, where they can help the next wave of youth have that same experience.”
Outdoor Outreach works with over 50 community-based partners and partner schools all over San Diego County. They also work closely with San Diego County Probation, engaging youth who are currently in custody, and in the psychiatric services department at Rady’s Children’s Hospital. In partnership with The San Diego Foundation and four other organizations, Outdoor Outreach is also part of Thrive Outside. This initiative constantly works together to create new outdoor opportunities for families.
Engaging the community, and the state, is part of Ben McCue’s role as executive director, which he took over in 2013. McCue says that beyond these local partnerships, they’re also pushing for policy change at higher levels with legislation like California Senate Bill 624, which would increase environmental equity and outdoor access.
The biggest hurdle, he says, is changing perception: “There’s this idea that outdoor engagement is a luxury. Specifically during the pandemic, we’ve seen that the ability to have access to safe outdoor spaces is a necessity for our mental and physical health.”
Prior to joining the organization, McCue was in coastal conservation work. But just like Duncan, he had his own personal connection to the outdoors and saw firsthand just how impactful it could be. That takeaway, and the impact of the pandemic, have led him to develop specific family engagement programs, where family members could come together to share these experiences.
“To be able to develop and run that program was so meaningful because it connected me back to the whole purpose of this work,” says McCue. “To hear parents tell me how meaningful these moments are, that for the first time in a whole year they were able to go outside and spend time together, is really powerful.”
Many of Outdoor Outreach’s Adventure Club and Family Engagement programs are available for open enrollment this spring. Or, learn more about their leadership or summer programs to know when and how to enroll.