Written by: Avril Wiers
“If we go for a second lap I’m going to faint.”
I was standing in a parking lot, rallying a group of 14 girls from all over the county, getting ready for another try at mountain biking. Our inspiring mentor for the day had since departed and lunchtime food coma was making us sluggish. Clouds loomed in the distance and, if you listened carefully, you could hear a slight rumble of thunder blowing in over the lake. If we didn’t get going soon, we were going to be stuck on the trail during the storm.
The program was Trailblazers, a new initiative of Careerline Tech Center, a career and technical school that is a part of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in Holland, Michigan. The goal of the program is to introduce girls to careers in the outdoor industry by engaging them in outdoor recreation activities with industry mentors. The time is right–in June of this year, Michigan announced the creation of an Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council, a group of business people and conservation leaders that will advise the Department of Natural Resources on how to improve access and economic growth in the outdoor recreation sector. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Michigan accounts for $26.6 billion of consumer spending annually. Yet, outdoor industry is a career path that is often overlooked, especially among women. Trailblazers is out to change that.
During the course of the week, the Trailblazers hiked 6.9 miles, mountain-biked 8.2 miles, kayaked 3.5 miles, and completed 30 rock-climbing routes. Every day had career exploration activities and leadership and teambuilding games interspersed with outdoor recreation that was, for many of the girls, more strenuous than anything they’d ever done before.
When asked what impact Trailblazers had on their career aspirations, girls agreed: “It has made me seriously consider a career in the outdoor industry.” Comparing pre- and post-program surveys revealed that, after participating in Trailblazers, over half of the girls were interested in careers in outdoor industry ranging from parks and recreation to bicycle manufacturing.
Camber Outdoors, a Boulder-based nonprofit organization working toward gender inclusivity in the outdoor industry, has cited a lack of female role models as a major roadblock to advancement in outdoor industry for women just starting out in their careers. To combat that, they introduced a professional mentoring program whereby manager-level women are mentored by executive-level women. By connecting girls with mentors working in outdoor industry, Trailblazers hoped to accomplish a similar goal–inspiring future outdoor industry workers early.
But the program didn’t only change girls’ life goals, it also boosted their self esteem. “I realized that if I push myself out of my comfort zone, I can do more than I think I can,” one girl wrote after her first time in a kayak. “I learned that I can reach my goals even if I’m scared,” another reflected about her first experience in a bouldering gym.
“Are we there yet?!” one girl yelled as we turned another corner on our mountain bikes. I felt a raindrop. Then another. Then it began to downpour. The girls let out a little scream, but they didn’t stop pedaling. We rounded three more curves and came to the parking lot, where the girls quickly hopped off their rental bikes and tossed their helmets in the hamper, making the final sprint to the bus.
I finished rounding up the gear and got on the bus myself.
“Avril, look at all my mud!” one girl cheered. I breathed a sigh of relief. Summer camp is, after all, supposed to be fun. Even if it is preparing these girls for their futures.