A Denver native brings the vast outdoors to at-risk youths

Jes Ward is the executive director of cityWILD, which enables students in Denver to raft, backpack, mountain-bike, and snowshoe – while they also strive to reach their full potential.

David Karas
In 2013, Jes Ward joined the leadership team at cityWILD, which organizes outdoor adventures for at-risk students.

No matter where one might be in Denver, it is hard to escape the breathtaking mountain backdrops that are so much a part of the city’s character and culture.

But even though the vast wilderness that surrounds the Mile High City is not far from the metropolis, it is still out of reach for many – particularly low-income families and marginalized youths.

Each day, Jes Ward works to change that trend.

“It is a birthright of people to be able to access nature and the outdoors,” she says. “It is so powerful.”

Ms. Ward is the executive director of cityWILD, a Denver nonprofit whose mission is to bring outdoor experiences “to a broad, inclusive audience,” as the organization puts it.

Toward that end, cityWILD organizes overnight and day trips for at-risk middle- and high-schoolers. The students can raft, backpack, mountain-bike, snowshoe, and more – in the process learning how to properly and safely explore the outdoors.

But cityWILD is also much more than that. It’s a free after-school program, offered four days a week during the school year, that concentrates on leadership development. And it provides support services to assist youths as they deal with various issues at school, at home, or in the community.

“It has to be holistic.... It cannot just be, ‘Let’s go camping,’ ” Ward says. “Nature is the metaphor, nature is the tool, and nature is the reward of it – but there is so much more intertwined into the approach.”

Ward knows all too well the importance of such programming in helping to address inequities.

“I was one of the youths that cityWILD and these other organizations strive to serve,” she says. “I grew up in extreme poverty, [with a] single-parent, teen mom who struggled to provide for me and my siblings. The way that I was able to develop all the skills that I have, and to connect with community and to keep hope, was through organizations like this.”

The oldest of six children, Ward knew at a young age that she wanted to get involved in education and youth work. While in high school, she participated in PeaceJam, a program in which Nobel Peace laureates nurture young peacemakers. She later served a one-year AmeriCorps term with PeaceJam before spending 13 years on PeaceJam’s staff working with youths around the world and exploring social justice issues.

A return home

When she left PeaceJam, she wanted to return home – to Denver. “I was looking for something that was more rooted in my community,” she says. And she was familiar with cityWILD from both growing up in the city and working with PeaceJam partner schools that were near cityWILD’s building.

Then she had a pivotal conversation with a friend while on a hike.

“If I could have my dream job, it would be connected with young people and doing that in a nature-based setting,” she recalls telling her friend. “If I could combine that with social justice – that would be my dream.”

Ward joined the cityWILD team in 2013 in her leadership role.

The organization, launched in 1998, is headquartered in a 6,000-square-foot space that was formerly a trolley car repair depot. Each day’s activities there include academic and homework support, opportunities for fellowship and discussion among program participants, and a healthy snack. CityWILD supplies all materials and food, as well as transportation for each student – from school to the program, and then home at the end of the day.

“CityWILD is empowering youth who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the opportunities and pathways [that] participation in the cityWILD program provides,” says Jackie Miller, director of youth initiatives for Great Outdoors Colorado, which has supported various cityWILD programs financially. “It’s deep work and it’s hard work, and cityWILD does it really well.”

She also applauds Ward’s commitment.

“Jes is a champion for youth and a champion for the youth and outdoors movement across Colorado and the country,” says Ms. Miller, who made her comments in an email interview. “Jes is authentically committed to her staff and program participants and constantly reflecting on herself as a leader and [on] the organization to ensure they are operating in a way that has the greatest impact on the youth served.”

Barriers vs. inclusivity

CityWILD has opened Ward’s eyes to the complex “psychological, cultural, and other barriers [that] low-income youth, youth of color, or youth with varying gender identities” can encounter in trying to experience the outdoors. For example, someone at a ski resort, Ward recalls, told one student, “[I] go to the mountains to get away from people like you.”

Such observations have only enhanced Ward’s efforts to lobby for greater inclusivity in the outdoors. She’s been further galvanized by witnessing the benefits that her students have reaped.

“[I] see the transformation in young people when they do have access to the outdoors and nature: It is incredible,” she says. “They are not the same young people that walk in the doors the first time.”

Sanjuana Casillas, who is in her early 20s, is a testament to cityWILD’s effect. She joined the program in 2006 and recently began an AmeriCorps term with the organization – as well as a term on the nonprofit’s board.

“It has always been a place I could go,” Ms. Casillas says. “It definitely has made me more outdoorsy ... [and] I found a voice as a leader when I was in sixth grade.”

CityWILD’s principles and activities, Ward says, naturally support the emergence of leaders. “Many define leadership as getting young people to get in front of a room and speak,” she says. “CityWILD’s approach is a little different: Leadership is more organic than that, and it is in every action that we do, every day.”

Ward stresses the intentional size of cityWILD, which hosts roughly 100 students per year. It is a drop-in program, she says, so somewhere between 10 and 30 might take part on a given day.

“It is really important for us to know the names of the students who come through the door,” she says. Staff members also strive to be familiar with the students’ families and how the youths are doing in school.

CityWILD has an annual operating budget of about $450,000. Its funding is derived mostly from grants and donations, as well as revenue from programs it’s launched in which people purchase outdoor adventures that are guided and managed by cityWILD.

‘Like a second home’

Julian, 15, who was in the sixth grade when he joined cityWILD, credits the organization with putting him on a better path.

“Without cityWILD, I definitely wouldn’t be in the place I am now,” he says. “I love it. It is like a second home.”

That sentiment is shared by at least one parent – Liz Rolison – whose son, 15, and daughter, 13, participate in the program.

“CityWILD feels like a part of our family,” she says in an email interview, adding that her children feel comfortable opening up to the cityWILD team about challenges.

Team members “are not just going through the motions but are very perceptive, compassionate, and [they] engage with the kids on a personal level to help develop and encourage them to be productive members in the community,” Ms. Rolison says. “When the kids or families present a problem, they work tirelessly to find resources to help them through their struggles.... For the children that attend cityWILD, and their families, having that type of support is invaluable.”

The foundation of cityWILD’s success, Ward says, is the power of nature as a teacher. It’s something that works particularly well for this age group.

“Teenagers are hard-wired to take risks. They are trying to push boundaries, [and] they are trying to learn about their place in the world,” she says. “Nature and the outdoors provide an opportunity for youth to take that healthy risk.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups standing up for children, sometimes with an ecological component:

Trekking for Kids provides infrastructure improvements to orphanages and schools in the developing world. Take action: Raise money for an infrastructure project by hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Made in a Free World aims to abolish modern slavery. Take action: Donate funds to help rescue children working on fishing boats in Ghana.

Let Kids Be Kids advocates on behalf of those who are poor, homeless, sick, displaced, or looking to improve their lives. Take action: Join Let Kids Be Kids in helping to protect endangered species.

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