By Alex Cohen
We made it to the halfway point! Today we woke up around 7:00am and had breakfast on the bus as we waited outside the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming. NOLS leads students of all ages, including at-risk youth in urban and rural areas around the country, on wilderness expeditions, teaching them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics.
Melissa Hemken, Kevin Redmond and Judd Rogers took us on a tour of the facility and we met with several of the school’s leaders, teachers and staff, who shared stories of students who underwent complete transformations while attending the program. They noted that, while the learned concrete skills are important, the true magic lies in the widened perspectives that students keep with them when they return from the wilderness. The theme of a “life-changing experience” echoed throughout each one, and my heart was full.
How do you empower young adults to venture out of their comfort zone and participate in an outdoors program, when they are already struggling to get through their own lives at home? Yet, somehow they convince them to try it, give them the support they need to get through it, and see them complete the program with pride and a new sense of confidence to conquer anything life throws in their way.
Even though they have 19 locations around the world, the NOLS headquarters and the Rocky Mountain Facility are both run out of Lander. The Rocky Mountain Facility is the flagship location for NOLS, and is also where they house all supplies, food, and equipment. They even have a repair shop for all the items loaned to the campers. The headquarters handles all staffing, finances, and strategic planning for all locations around the world, allowing them to be highly efficient. It is clear that NOLS truly believes in the work they are doing by creating leaders that strive to affect positive change in the communities they live in. They also practice what they preach by having a strong focus on sustainability both in the wilderness as well as at the facilities that they operate out of.
During our visit, we witnessed a new group getting ready to go out for a few weeks. We watched as they packed everything they would need, before being dropped off at their campsites for at least a month. That was enough to scare ME half to death (I’m not really an outdoorsy type). Their facility also houses student interns and faculty that teach everything from survival skills, medical emergency treatment to environmental protection.
We met three very impressive ladies who are NOLS program leaders, they explained that NOLS is actively trying to recruit more women staff; they will train them to go through the program themselves and to teach students leadership and outdoor skills. One of their goals is to have more than 42 percent of their faculty consist of women in this male dominated field.
After leaving NOLS I had a newfound respect for what survival skills really are. Our society tries to make us believe that living on the rough side of the road makes us stronger. In reality, we get stronger by conquering the things that scare us the most, which then empowers us to try anything we want. I was glad I was able to learn that lesson at NOLS, and plan on helping them continue to serve at-risk teens with scholarships to complete the program.
After a 4.5 hour drive we arrived in Salt Lake city for lunch. My friend Guy Fieri, the famous chef from the show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives recommended a Mexican restaurant called the Red Iguana. We walked in and were seated in the back by the kitchen counter. The menu looked great and we were all happy to be off the bus and enjoying a quiet meal together. The food was delicious but what really impressed me was the staff. Everyone was super-friendly, professional and extremely hard working – not once did we see anyone idly sitting or standing around chatting. When we were almost done eating I asked the manager how many employees worked at the restaurant – he told me there are 32 employees including the kitchen staff. I complimented him on the food and the service and told him I would like to give every single staff member there a tip.
He seemed confused. I told him about The Giving Tour and explained why we were crossing the country doing random acts of kindness, and why it’s so important that everyone feels valued and appreciated for the hard work they do. I then handed him $3,200 and asked him to give each one of his employees $100 – he was floored. When he said he was not sure that he could accept such an incredible gesture from a stranger; I told him we were no longer strangers, we were now friends, and this was my way of saying thank you.
After he picked up his jaw off the floor, he had some of his staff come out to meet us and say thanks – everyone was smiling from ear to ear.
Think about it: how many times in life does a stranger roll into town and hand you a $100 bill? They deserved it because they were doing more than just their job – they were doing it with pride and treating everyone in the restaurant as if they were special – I wanted to tell them that I appreciated that.
With full hearts and full bellies, we arrived at Salt Lake City Community Action Program & Head Start (health, education, self-sufficiency). We were greeted by Joni Clark, Chief Development Officer, and Erin Tenbeath-Murray, CEO/Head Start Director, as well as two very old friends, Chef David Robinson and Tom Michel. I met Chef David many years ago at a SALT conference, and met his partner Tom shortly after.
Chef came to me with the idea of a training program for wounded retired or active veterans that wanted to learn to cook. What started out as an idea for David ended up a reality, and a successful one at that, with many of his students continuing on to culinary institutes and becoming professional chefs. We were the first to support Chef David’s program not only financially but also by supporting him every step of the way; we continue to support the program even today.
David and Tom moved to Salt Lake City Utah a few years ago and told us they had found an incredible organization that allows Chef to use their space for his Culinary Command program, and it just happened to be the Community Action Program that was already on our list to visit – talk about killing two birds with one stone.
This group does everything from housing and rental assistance, a heat program, adult education, health and nutrition, and many more incredible beneficial programs for low-income households and the local community. Our visit focused on the Head Start program they run for pre-school aged children.
We came into their classroom and explained that we came a very long way to spend time with them. We each were responsible for two kids, we took them into the kitchen and rolled pizza dough and let the kids add whatever toppings they wanted; this proved to be a little messy, thank goodness we all had aprons on!
After we let them create their masterpieces we went into a room and I read them a story about animals choosing healthy snacks and learning to eat healthier… By the time we got them all quieted down, the pizza was ready and we enjoyed sitting with them until their parents came to pick them up. It was a lot of fun seeing kids from all walks of life playing and eating together, we should all be that generous of spirit.
Time to say goodbye to the kiddies and shower and get ready for dinner with Chef David, Tom and the team, after a few drinks and a lot of good food and laughs, I am in my jammies writing my daily journal, hoping you are still all interested and reading… Today was the first day I think I may be a little too old for trips like these; thank Goodness I have a few days to recuperate when its over, but I will never forget this feeling of complete fullness of spirit and joy.
Until tomorrow my amigos… let’s see what adventures may come…