Youth Impact Stories

With your generous support, we get thousands of students outside in the North Cascades ecosystem to learn about, appreciate and connect with their natural heritage on public lands every year. They learn about ecology and field science, but more importantly, they get a chance to start a lifetime engagement with their local environment.

The Path for Youth is a suite of programs and a shared vision between North Cascades Institute and our public land and community partners to engage young people through education, conservation and stewardship. We provide experiences, tools, empowerment and practice to inspire the next generation of informed and engaged citizens, community leaders and stewards.  
Here are a few stories of young people who have had transformative experiences in North Cascades Institute programs.

Here are a few stories of young people who have had transformative experiences in North Cascades Institute programs.

Indira-SupportIndira Mejia-Chavez

Indira attended Mountain School with her fifth grade class in 2004. “It was totally different—a whole new world I’d never seen before," she said, "and it was pretty cool.” She recalls how the Mountain School trail groups broke up the cliques and brought everyone together.

While Mountain School made a big impression on her, Indira didn’t stop there. In 2009 and 2011 she participated in what is now our Youth Leadership Adventures program. She spent over a month in the North Cascades overcoming the challenges of being placed far outside one’s comfort zone. “I grew so much from this opportunity to lead others.”

Indira went on to become an assistant with our Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth program that provides monthly field trips to youth and their families from three Skagit Valley neighborhoods. “It’s a great opportunity for families to bond, to go outside and do fun things that they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to do.” Having grown up having to make do with less, Indira knows the importance of these opportunities.

Indira came full circle last year when she returned to Mountain School as a chaperone with Kulshan Creek.

“I wish kids would play more with each other and get outside instead of being stuck inside with electronics," Indira remarked, "I wish they would disconnect and connect with themselves, each other and nature!”


Crystal Sierra

Coming from a Puerto Rican-American single parent household, transportation and income kept Crystal from participating in ‘typical’ community activities. She wanted to become the first person in her family to go to college, but didn’t know where to start. Then she found the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth program, a partnership initiative in which North Cascades Institute works to make environmental education more accessible for low-income youth in one of the Skagit Valley's most racially diverse neighborhoods. Crystal loved the Kulshan field trips to places like Baker Lake, the Learning Center and the Migratory Bird Festival at Whidbey Island, and she began to wonder if field biology could be a potential career path for her. She was the perfect candidate for the Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures 16-day Science and Sustainability course!

But whether or not her family could afford it was another story. The reality of not having the funds to take part weighed heavy on Crystal and her family. “Like everything else I’m interested in doing,” she wrote in her application, “money is a big factor.” She crossed her fingers and applied for Institute scholarship.

She was elated when she received a scholarship: “I felt so blessed! When the Institute assured me that things I didn’t have, like a sleeping bag and hiking boots, would be provided to me, I just remember feeling so welcomed! No judgment and no problems.”

Camping, canoeing and hiking were all new for Crystal, and her ability to look at any situation with a positive attitude turned these challenges into opportunities. Youth Leadership Adventures provided Crystal with a community of peers and mentors that empowered her.

“After this summer, I feel like I can do anything! The leadership skills and confidence I gained is something I will never forget.”

And we’re lucky that Crystal’s story continues with us. She spoke to an adult audience for the Wild Nearby North Cascades book, organized a fun run at her school to raise money for the Kulshan Creek program and just got hired to be a Youth Leadership Adventure apprentice this summer. We can’t wait to see her next chapter!



To watch a friend die and not be able to help can be debilitating for anyone. For Joseph, who was born in Myanmar and fled at a young age with his family to find safety in Burmese refugee camps, it was a calling to learn how to save a life. He vowed at an early age to do something to save lives, yet he felt guilty for not being able to save his friend and was ashamed to talk about his past.

On his first day of class in the US, Joseph was intrigued by an opportunity offered to him during a North Cascades Institute presentation: spend 8 days and nights in the North Cascades wilderness learning outdoor, stewardship and leadership skills with Youth Leadership Adventures. Four months later, he was on the trail with a backpack and team of peers and mentors that would change his life.

Because of his background as a refugee, he assumed people wouldn’t like him and so was always on the defensive. And despite speaking six languages, Joseph was uncomfortable speaking English in front of others.

Youth Leadership Adventures gave him the opportunity to conquer these fears in a safe, supportive environment and to learn, alongside his peers, the value of nature and how he could make a positive difference in the world.

Joseph found refuge in his group and began to understand that others didn’t hate him, but rather the hate and guilt he had carried within himself all these years following his friend’s death had drastically impaired his ability to make friends. The most challenging experience was presenting his story, in English, to the adult visitors who came midway through the trip. He challenged himself and was able to share his story and aspirations to one day be an EMT or Search and Rescue member.

“My experiences from my summer trip influenced me to become a man who values nature, animals, and friends. Also, it made me become a more confident and social man than I was before. And I understand more about friendship and more about peoples’ lives. The most valuable thing I gained from the trip is happiness because the whole trip makes me feel the way I never felt before. “

After the Youth Leadership Adventures trip, Joseph was nominated to participate in the national program, TEEN CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) in Tukwila, and is now a trained volunteer able to assist in his community. Joseph’s path to achieving his life-long goal to help save lives was jumpstarted through his participation in Youth Leadership Adventures.

Meron-AbdisaMeron Abdisa

Meron and her brother moved to the Seattle area from Ethiopia. An English Language Learners student at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, she speaks Amharic at home where she lives with her adoptive mother. She struggles with English and confidence in public speaking, saying, “It is hard for me to overcome fear and challenge myself.”

When she saw the opportunity to participate in North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures, she decided to take it. Over eight days, Meron visited a National Park for her first time, canoe-camped on Diablo Lake, backpacked and completed trail projects while developing her leadership skills.

“The stewardship work helped me focus on the future,” Meron explains. “I learned to talk to people and presented in front of a class. My favorite memories were waking up early and doing yoga, canoeing and singing as a group. These experiences shaped me by helping me believe that I can do things without giving up easily.”

JJ-DoriaJJ Doria

JJ Doria is a scholarship recipient from 2014 hailing from Yakima. Early on JJ recognized the importance of the outdoors for personal renewal and growth. In 5th grade he was regularly bullied because of his weight. He started abandoning his friends, his schoolwork, and other activities.

But in 6th grade he started biking and skiing. This newfound connection to nature led to him participating with local environmental groups. He even started an environmental club at his school. But he still didn’t consider himself a leader and in fact had a deep fear of public speaking, thinking that he offended people.

He applied to YLA and by the end of the first day of his trip, his group nicknamed him Smiley. JJ rose to the challenge of being a leader in his group because of their support and acceptance. “I was told by my group that my smile had an impact on them. Being told this really boosted my self-confidence because it let me know that I’m not negative and I’m easily liked.”

The structured time to reflect in the evenings brought JJ clarity. “My experiences, challenges, opportunities and blessings never really seemed noticeable until the last night at Ross Lake when I wrote in my journal…” When JJ first began getting outdoors it had been as an escape from the realities of everyday life, but through YLA he now understands the inherent connection between his life in Yakima and the natural world.

JJ produced a video with a Go-pro camera and also waxed poetically about his time. “I was once eroded by other forces, torn down, rolled down to the bottom of valleys, canyons, and crevasses. But now I’m a mountain reaching to the skies, a tree growing up to the top of the tree line, and a rock continuing its journey in the rushing river of life. Thanks to my summer experience in Youth Leadership Adventures, I have learned that am a positive and successful leader that loves to be outdoors, succeed in life and give back. I will help protect the environment because the environment is just like me.”

JJ has been accepted into our 2015 Science and Sustainability course and is now president of his school’s ecology club, increasing the number of club members and days in the field.

See JJ’s Youth Leadership Adventures experiences through his own eyes with this short Go-Pro video he made during the “best week” of his life: 

Grace-BogneImpactStoryGrace Bogne

Grace is a first generation American who was born in Cameroon. She moved to the United States in 2006 and participated in North Cascades Wild during the summer of 2007.

“My experience at North Cascades was fun, but also challenging to some degree. When I went on the trip, I had been in the U.S. for less than a year and was still not confident in my English skills, which made it difficult at times to express my thoughts. However, going on this trip opened up a lot of doors for me. I was able to gain leadership skills, from being leader of the day, as well as canoeing and camping skills. Through this trip, I was able to see that the state of Washington was not just made of tall skyscrapers, or suburban neighborhoods, but beautiful mountains, bright green lakes, and a variety of plants and animals. Finally, I learned how important it is to preserve our national parks, so that future generations will have the chance to experience what the North Cascades Wild students experienced.”

Grace came back to work as a student hire for North Cascades National Park this past summer. She also participated in our inaugural Youth Leadership Conference in November. She is currently a freshman at Seattle University and plans to continue working for public lands preservation.

BiancaBianca Elena Valles

Bianca is a senior at Mount Vernon High School. She participated in North Cascades Wild, a precursor to our Youth Leadership Adventures program, during the summer of 2009. “I can still remember all the emotions I went through when I got that phone call saying I was accepted to go on this trip! Pure shock, excitement, anticipation, and wonder overcame me. But once I actually got to go on the trip, my whole point of view of the world changed, and many doors opened up for me.”

The following summer, Bianca went on to participate in a 3-week Watershed Ecology program in the Copper River Delta of Chugach National Forest, Alaska. This November, she returned to the North Cascades to attend our inaugural Youth Leadership Conference.

She says, “Once I viewed the beauty of the North Cascades, I realized something. I actually want to help preserve this captivating place for many future generations. My group leaders taught me how important it is to care for natural areas, and what we can do to help conserve it. If we minimize the amount of energy and water we use, even by a little bit, we can help slow down climate change or global warming. If we just choose to help out by doing small things like composting, recycling, shorter showers, etc, we can make a difference. I have learned all these facts and much more, and have dedicated myself to teaching others about what I have learned.”

Bianca continues her work on public lands in the summer of 2015, working on the North Zone fire engine for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest!