We sat down with Outdoor Outreach founder Chris Rutgers to talk about his founding principles, his vision for the organization, and one very important aha moment. Chris founded Outdoor Outreach in 1999, and the vision that he catalyzed is just as present in our work today as it was 20 years ago.
Our 20th Anniversary story series will include 20 stories to highlight 20 years of adventure since our founding in 1999. Make sure to follow along!
Q: What was going on in your life when you started OO?
A: I often refer to myself as the ultimate case study for what we do at Outdoor Outreach. When I was young, I had a lot of challenges. I suffered a lot of abuse and neglect and barely survived my childhood. When I was 18 I got the opportunity to have a job washing dishes at a ski lodge in Utah. I started skiing and I eventually became a professional skier. It completely changed my life.
I was skiing 150 days a year during the winter and in the summer I was climbing, surfing, kayaking and traveling all over the world. The whole time, I knew that I’d love to start an organization to give kids who have had the same life experiences as me the same opportunities I had been given. Then, 20 years ago, I had a significant back injury that suddenly ended my skiing career. That was 20 years ago and that’s when I decided to put my energy and focus into founding Outdoor Outreach. It was like, “OK, I get it universe!”
Q: How did you feel in those first few months of founding OO?
A: The greatest challenges came after my money ran out. The first 2 years I self funded Outdoor Outreach but after that it was very competitive to go after grant dollars and sponsorships. That’s one of the biggest challenges in getting a nonprofit going — it’s very competitive. Another challenge was just me trying to do this myself and figuring out how to fundraise and run trips at the same time. In the early days I was running every trip myself for the most part and that was a lot of work.
The greatest joy came from the connections I made with the kids in those early years when I was running every single trip myself. The first cohort of leadership kids included Juan, who is still with organization today along with a few other kids who are still involved. It’s been almost 20 years since that first cohort and we were truly family. Some of them were homeless and I had this capacity to kind of became their parental figure and it was an amazing family. We ran these trips together and it was pretty special.
Q: What drew you to the youth demographic we serve at OO?
A: I wanted to create an organization that was 100% devoted to kids that otherwise would not have the opportunity to get outside and connect with positive mentors and friends. My focus was to work with kids who were falling through the cracks and were not getting support and help they needed. I wanted to work with kids that were dealing with abuse and neglect and trauma and were living below the poverty line or in foster care or were homeless. It made the business model really tricky because almost all of our budget had to come from outside philanthropy but it remained my driving focus.
Q: Can you tell us about why it’s important for kids to know someone believes in them?
A: The single most important indicator for resilience against trauma is having at least one safe relationship. If a kid has one safe relationship it changes everything, and that’s what Outdoor Outreach is about; that one safe place for them.
Q: What’s the most rewarding part of the work that Outdoor Outreach does?
A: I think one of the most rewarding parts of the work, is seeing that moment when a kid lights up through an experience, where a kid pops up on a wave for the first time or a kid who’s never seen snow gets down a mountain or sees the ocean or a rock wall for the first time and climbs it; that immediate sense of empowerment and efficacy that comes with that kind of experience is really cool. It’s through those experiences that you hear kids say “this is the best day of my life.”
I live for those moments, but it’s actually the subtle moments which are more powerful. It’s those in between moments where there are small, incremental connections being made: trust being built, vulnerability being explored. It happens during lunch breaks, riding in the vans and getting to the destinations. Seeing those moments build and watching the transformation of kids who have come in totally shutdown or checked out and then seeing them come to life, or seeing a kids issues with anger melt away. Those are the most rewarding moments.
Q: What was your greatest aha moment at Outdoor Outreach?
A: One of my big aha moments in the early years was when we first started our Adventure Club program. In the first number of years we created an Adventure Club model which meant that we got to work with kids on a weekly basis, at their school. Our first Adventure Club was with 15 freshman kids from Hoover High School, which at the time had a graduation rate of only 35 percent. The club became a family unit, meeting every day after school, supporting each other through challenges and helping each other with whatever they needed to get through the school year.
After 4 years in the club at this school with a 35 percent graduation rate, 100 percent of the club graduated from high school. That was a big aha moment. Like woah, we can have a really huge transformational impact with this organization it’s not just about fun experiences outdoors. We can can change their lives and be transformational. That was pretty special.
Q: What legacy do you hope to leave through Outdoor Outreach?
A: The legacy and power of Outdoor Outreach doesn’t have anything to do with the outdoors. Outdoor Outreach is about building relationships and creating support systems for the kids we work with. Every single thing in these kids’ environments is reinforcing negative cycles. They are living in neighborhoods where there is no expectation that they graduate from high school and go to college. No expectation that they live happy, healthy, productive lives. What we do is short circuit that cycle and show these kids there is a whole world of possibilities. We surround them with amazing adult role models and peer systems where there’s a completely different expectation. We connect them with people who show them that there’s this whole big awesome, amazing world out there and this is what it looks like. We present that to the kids and almost always they rise to that possibility and really change their lives and break those cycles. That’s the legacy that I’d like to leave through Outdoor Outreach: a continuation of breaking those cycles.
Outdoor Outreach is a San Diego-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides adventure-based youth development programs serving 1,700 vulnerable and at-risk youth each year. Through those programs, we’re helping youth build resilience in the face of challenges, and confidence in their power to make a difference.