Big City Mountaineers Goes Big for Urban Teens

When Heather Metivi­er answers the phone at Big City Moun­taineers (BCM) head­quar­ters, the orga­ni­za­tion is still oper­at­ing from a 100-year old Vic­to­ri­an jalopy of a house with bust­ed pipes and a lot of poten­tial. But change is in the air. As Metivi­er tells me about BCM, employ­ees can be heard in the back­ground shuf­fling box­es around for the orga­ni­za­tion’s upcom­ing move. Some­where beneath them, the befouled main line gur­gles and burps a vic­to­ri­ous good­bye. The house is a fix­er-upper, a metaphor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate but seem­ing­ly unlike­ly work­place for the nine Den­ver-based employ­ees of a nation­al non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that com­mands a $1.38-million/year bud­get, is under­writ­ten by out­door giants like Jans­port, and receives full-page adver­tis­ing spreads in Back­pack­er mag­a­zine for free because the pub­lish­er likes what it’s all about. But as with the week­long out­door adven­tures BCM pro­vides to under-resourced urban youths, the orga­ni­za­tion’s time—six full years—at the house must come to an end.

“It’s been great here, but we’ve been with­out water for the past 3 days, which is maybe a sign that we’re ready to move on,” laughs Metivi­er, direc­tor of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions at BCM. “We’ve lit­er­al­ly been going across the street to the cof­fee shop when­ev­er one of us has to use the bathroom.”

Hav­ing out­grown its slight­ly dilap­i­dat­ed Den­ver digs, BCM is mov­ing its oper­a­tion to the Amer­i­can Moun­taineer­ing Cen­ter in Gold­en, CO. BCM’s tran­si­tion from the city to the foothills of the Rock­ies is in a way sym­bol­ic of its mis­sion, to trans­form the lives of urban youths by pluck­ing them out of the city and intro­duc­ing them into more wild, scenic land­scapes, where they will expe­ri­ence chal­lenges and life lessons while on expe­di­tion with men­tors. Employ­ees are excit­ed about the move but will miss the quirks of their crotch­ety old Victorian.

Grow­ing a non­prof­it requires the same patient love it takes to fix up an old house. BCM employ­ees like Metivi­er don’t spend their days tromp­ing through the woods as you might imag­ine (and as they might pre­fer). They’re too busy fundrais­ing and work­ing out the daunt­ing logis­tics of get­ting over 1,000 youths/year on the trip of a life­time. Right now, BCM pro­gram man­agers are hit­ting the phones, recruit­ing vol­un­teers and devel­op­ing part­ner­ships with com­mu­ni­ty-based youth orga­ni­za­tions around the coun­try. Only when all that’s in place can they sched­ule an expedition. 

First, the part­ner com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions nom­i­nate urban youth par­tic­i­pants for the free expe­ri­ence. Then BCM takes over and the fun begins. Before lead­ing the youths on an expe­di­tion, BCM puts them through a few days of basic out­doors train­ing, teach­ing them skills like how to pitch a tent and how to be safe on the trail. Each expedition—most are alpine back­pack­ing trips but Mid­west par­tic­i­pants go canoe­ing in the Bound­ary Waters—lasts a full week and is made up of five youths, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion, a wilder­ness guide, and three adult vol­un­teer mentors.

“By main­tain­ing a 1:1 adult-to-youth ratio we’re ensur­ing that each youth gets the max­i­mum amount of sup­port, encour­age­ment and inspi­ra­tion they need,” says Metivi­er. We believe that this invest­ment is crit­i­cal to their suc­cess and far out­weighs the cost of an unfor­tu­nate path through the jus­tice system.”

Sev­en­ty-one per­cent of youth par­tic­i­pants in BCM expe­di­tions come from sin­gle-par­ent or guardian-less homes. Eighty-three per­cent live below the pover­ty line. All of them are at high risk of join­ing gangs, drop­ping out of high school, and becom­ing addict­ed to drugs and alco­hol. Their sit­u­a­tions are com­pli­cat­ed, which is why BCM bases its mod­el off Joseph Camp­bel­l’s hero’s jour­ney, in which a per­son who is con­fused in life embarks on a jour­ney dur­ing which he or she meets a men­tor in a strange world. The orga­ni­za­tion sees its expe­di­tions as cat­a­lysts to improved integri­ty, self-esteem, respon­si­bil­i­ty, deci­sion-mak­ing abil­i­ties, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in par­tic­i­pants. And it works.

In a gush­ing thank-you let­ter, par­tic­i­pant Tay­lor (whose last name has been omit­ted for pri­va­cy), who grew up with an absent fam­i­ly and fell into drugs at 14 before drop­ping out of high school, described his 2011 BCM expe­di­tion as trans­for­ma­tive. He wrote that it was, “absolute­ly the great­est expe­ri­ence” he had yet to have in life and that “one of the biggest things I learned [on the expe­di­tion] was, you don’t need fam­i­ly to be suc­cess­ful, all you need are pos­i­tive role mod­els in your life to help give you that boost of sup­port. And on this trip I got that sup­port; I gained the abil­i­ty to believe in myself and to fol­low my dreams.”

BCM funds its expe­di­tions with cor­po­rate dona­tions from its many part­ners in the out­door indus­try and through its suc­cess­ful Sum­mit For Some­one pro­gram, in which vol­un­teers raise mon­ey for the orga­ni­za­tion from fam­i­ly and friends by climb­ing one of North Amer­i­ca’s most chal­leng­ing peaks. BCM puts near­ly all of that mon­ey into pro­gram­ming, which in part explains the house.

For Metivi­er, BCM’s impend­ing move out of the Vic­to­ri­an is bit­ter­sweet. The orga­ni­za­tion needs more space if it’s to con­tin­ue grow­ing. But the nos­tal­gic smile on her lips is audi­ble as she describes the failed pipes, the inva­sive tree root, and the mul­ti­tude of oth­er quirks she’s become accus­tomed to in the old head­quar­ters. But the employ­ees at BCM know as well as any­one, the next step is the most impor­tant part of every journey.

Want to learn more about Big City Moun­taineers? Check out this video about “Tay­lor’s” experience: