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: