Juan is Outdoor Outreach’s Field Program & Logistics Coordinator. He’s been with Outdoor Outreach for 15 years and takes pride in being “one of the originals”. “Back when the organization was ran from [OO founder] Chris Rutgers’ apartment, back when we only had one small car to organize our outings, and used our personal climbing and camping gear.”
Things have changed since then; yet Juan’s story still very much mirrors that of the 1,000 youth Outdoor Outreach serves annually. Juan was introduced to Outdoor Outreach at the age of 17, at St. Vincent de Paul Toussaint Center for homeless teens. He had lost both his parents at a young age and had been on his own, “bouncing around different homeless shelters” since he was 14 years-old.
“At the time, I was always in trouble. Always up to no good. When Outdoor Outreach showed up, I wasn’t particularly interested in going on an outing, but the Center made me go. More than anything else, I think they wanted to get rid of me for a few hours and told [the OO staff] ‘We need a break from him’”.
The small group went rock climbing at Dixon Lake, in Escondido. For Juan, the experience was “different”. “There was this White guy, not only asking me to trust him, but doing so while I was hanging on the edge of a cliff. So naturally, I didn’t like him at first. To be honest, the only reason why I climbed up anyway was because there were two girls watching me at the bottom”.
The experience was life-changing. Juan immediately recognized the sensation: “I used to have an adrenaline rush fighting, and I was surprised to find it rock climbing. After that, I kept going and kept going. Next thing I knew, I was rock climbing, mountain biking, surfing.” The program provided a unique support system. It wasn’t only climbing; Outdoor Outreach was also helping with college applications, tutoring, transport… “They knew most of us grew up with no parents or support. They became our first line of defense in life. When they couldn’t help, they always found somebody -volunteers- to help.”
Juan joined the Leadership Program a couple years later, leaving a job in construction to inspire other young people like him, to change the narrative of what they could be and do. Reflecting on Outdoor Outreach’s growth and his own role within the organization, Juan says he still feels the same drive and desire to give at-risk youth the same opportunities he was given.
He often talks about the difficulty of gaining these kids’ trust: “Our demographic has a pretty strong ‘BS detector’. Especially the kids who come from the foster care system, and have developed a sixth sense over the years. I’ve come to realize that what really makes a difference is them knowing that we’re not fake. That we do care about them. What I love is seeing them smile because they have those opportunities. I love showing them that the Outdoors has no boundaries; that these activities don’t have to be a luxury reserved for ‘rich people’. I’m excited to see Outdoor Outreach grow and help more students. A lot of these kids wouldn’t have the information, the funds, the transportation to do these activities. A lot of them are busy helping out their families from a very early age. As our programs grow, we have an amazing opportunity to establish more relationships with these kids, to make a difference and change their lives. I’m proud to have stuck with it this whole time”.