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Out There Adventures fosters community for queer teens through kayaking

Bainbridge Island residents Kira McGieson and Elyse Rylander have created an organization that’s giving queer youth in the Northwest access to the outdoors. Out There Adventures is working to foster a safe environment for queer-identified youth through an eight-day kayaking program in the San Juan Islands that combines outdoor leadership, sea kayaking skills, and community and personal development.

Out There Adventures was born out of “loving the outdoors, loving the queer community, being a part of both, and wanting a way to bring those together professionally,” says McGieson. The program was originally conceived as the capstone project for Rylander’s undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. Though Out There Adventures, or OTA, was an academic project, Rylander wanted to see her project realized as an organization that might actually serve queer youth.

Photo courtesy of Out There Adventures

OTA Executive Director Elyse Rylander

“I just happened to have a really wonderful, supportive core of adults, who were like, ‘yeah, you should do this,’” says Rylander. Her mentors advised her to move to Denver, San Francisco, or Seattle to get the program off the ground. Rylander decided to set up home base in Seattle and began the process of securing nonprofit status through the IRS. By reaching out to the University of Washington’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, a program that provides low or no-cost legal services to entrepreneurs who might not have financial access to legal help, Rylander and McGieson quickly received nonprofit status and saw it as a sign to move forward: they began educating themselves rapidly on the nuts of bolts of nonprofit ownership like grant writing, legal compliance, outreach, programming, and marketing.

A recent fundraiser held on Bainbridge helped them raise over $10,000 to put toward programming costs.“We really went from, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool,’ to $25,000 later we have a trip on the books [and] kids are signed up,” says Rylander.

Why choose the outdoors as the setting to work with queer youth? “The way I see it, there’s a lot of momentum in the youth and child work world [to the idea that] kids need to be outdoors - it’s good for mental health,  it’s good for coping mechanisms, it’s good for learning, it’s just an all-around healthy thing for youth to be doing,” says McGieson. “There’s also a lot of movement toward inclusivity of the queer community; we’ve seen an enormous uptick in visibility, in activism, and in legislation, and it’s just all really exciting. I think OTA sort of harnesses these two trends that haven’t intersected at all.”

McGieson and Rylander both have ample experience with and passion for the outdoors: McGieson is a longtime YMCA Camp Orkila alumna and Rylander camped extensively with her family throughout childhood. Their own experiences in the wilderness have informed their desire to create a program for queer youth. “I can point to a lot of different moments through my time in the wilderness that have really been influential either in my confidence in my own abilities or my relationship with myself,” says McGieson.

Photo courtesy of Out There Adventures

OTA Program Director Kira McGieson

Their inaugural eight-day June paddling trip will be similar to other existing outdoor leadership programs like those of Camp Orkila, NOLS, and Outward Bound. The program’s curriculum focuses on transferring the leadership from the trip leaders to the youth “so that they can feel a lot of ownership over the group and the community that they create,” says McGieson. Along with paddling around the San Juans, the trip includes programming to teach leadership, community building, coping skills, and healthy communication among the participants, all specifically tailored to the needs of queer teens.

The trip will likely entail a lot of learning on the part of Rylander and McGieson too: “It’ll probably be more learning from them - allowing them to be the driver,” Rylander says. The trip leaders want to challenge and be challenged by their campers: they hope to facilitate conversations that ask “‘Where are we going to go today, make sure we get to the right island,’ but also, ‘Teach me about your lived experience, the things that are true for you, and what you want to be in five years,’” says Rylander. She feels that many queer youth are already asking serious questions about identity; her goal in working with them, then, is to take those questions to the next level.

Creating a safe space for their participants is one of OTA’s biggest goals, they say. “Youth, especially queer youth who are going to school [and] participating in extracurriculars, if they feel safe enough to do so, are going to get little pockets of safety and emotional safety knowing that their identities will be confirmed and affirmed, but they don’t get to exist in that space,” says McGieson. “What we really want to offer is the experience for queer youth to be able to wake up day after day - for eight days, which, granted, is a short period of time - and know what it’s like to wake up day after day knowing that you’re going be seen for who you are, you’re going be affirmed, supported, and be in a community of people who get you.”

OTA’s eight-day kayaking program takes place from June 21 to 28 and is still open for registration - ten spots are left on this trip. Payment operates on a sliding scale with three available payment tiers, and scholarships are available. Youth ages 14 to 18 are welcome.



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