Youth Impact Stories

Thanks to your generous support, thousands of students get outside in the North Cascades ecosystem to learn about, appreciate and connect with their natural heritage on public lands with the Institute every year. Here are a few of their stories. 

Kang Pu, Tukwilla

Kang Pu is the oldest of 5 children, born in a small village in the Zogam region of Burma. He started helping on his family farm at a young age when he wasn’t in school. He was 10 years old when his mother passed away in childbirth and he bottle-fed and slept near his baby brother every night.

At 13 he needed to start providing for his family so he walked for two days to India with a water buffalo, which he sold to buy a plane ticket to Malaysia. “I worked for three years helping to prepare dim sum at a Chinese restaurant. I could not go to school there, but could send almost all of the money I earned to my family in Burma. I missed my family and my country very deeply, but I knew that there was more opportunity elsewhere.”

In 2014, he flew to the US with his aunt and uncle, and they got refugee status. Kang Pu now attends Foster High School and is working on his English. He told his school newspaper in February, “When I first arrived here, I just walked around and looked at all the trees; there were not very many of those where I was living in Kuala Lumpur.”

Being in a national park particularly inspired Kang Pu during his Youth Leadership Adventure course in 2015. After completing his education, he hopes to return to Burma as businessman to help with education and perhaps even start a national park. “After we cut down all the trees, the birds and animals went to other places. I want them to come back. I want to create the first Burmese National Park to protect the land, animals and birds, including Zomi’s national emblem, the hornbill. The hornbill symbolizes a noble and beautiful life characterized by love and faithfulness.”

Youth Leadership Adventures taught Kang Pu how to be a good follower and good leader. “I learned how to speak in front of others and why getting outside is important. Other students should do this program because if they just stay home they won’t learn anything. We learn how to take care of the environment when we face challenges, go outside, and meet new people.”

Kang Pu was featured in The Everett Herald!


JJ, Yakima

JJ first attended Youth Leadership Adventures on a scholarship in 2014. 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 and he began abandoning his friends, schoolwork, and other activities.

But in 6th grade he started biking and skiing. This newfound connection to nature led to participating with local environmental groups and starting 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.

By the end of the first day of his Outdoor Leadership course, his group had nicknamed him Smiley. “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.”

When JJ first began getting outdoors it had been as an escape from the realities of everyday life, but he now understands the connection between his life in Yakima and the natural world.

JJ 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 I am a positive and successful leader... I will help protect the environment because the environment is just like me.”

JJ came back in 2015 for the 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. Read about why this was the "best summer ever" from JJ and other student success stories here.


Joseph, Tukwilla

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 in the 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 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 aspirations to one day become 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."

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


Crystal, Mt. Vernon

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, which helps make environmental education more accessible in one of the Skagit Valley's most racially diverse neighborhoods. Crystal loved the Kulshan field trips and began to wonder if biology could be a potential career path for her. She was the perfect candidate for our Youth Leadership Adventures Science and Sustainability course!

She was elated when she received a scholarship that enabled her to take the course: “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!”

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. “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 continued 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 came back as a Youth Leadership Adventure apprentice in 2015. She's now attending Pacific Lutheran University and continues to look for opportunities to help others grow and connect with nature. 

Bianca, Mt. Vernon

Bianca participated in North Cascades Wild, a precursor to our Youth Leadership Adventures program, in 2009. “I can still remember all my emotions I got that phone call saying I was accepted to go on this trip! Pure shock, excitement, anticipation, and wonder overcame me. 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 participated in a 3-week Watershed Ecology program in Alaska, then came back 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. 

Bianca continued her work on public lands in the summer of 2015. After the Goodall Wildfire blew up in the Newhalem Gorge that summer, it began spreading toward our Environmental Learning Center. Two fire crews were called in, including Bianca who was working on the North Zone fire engine for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. 

"It was amazing returning to North Cascades Institute not as a wide-eyed student just starting to learn about nature and stewardship, but as a wildlands firefighter working for the Forest Service. It really felt like coming full circle, and I don't think I'd be where I am today without those early experiences with the Institute."

Indira 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.