November 2017 Featured Educator: Hanna Gneiting
What is your current position?
I currently serve as the Youth Programs Manager for Outdoor Outreach organization based in San Diego, California. Outdoor Outreach was founded in 1999 with the goal of exposing teenagers in San Diego area to the transformative powers of the outdoors. Since then, we have grown and served over 10,000 youth in the county of San Diego to such experiences as mountain biking, surfing, rock climbing, snowboarding, kayaking, and pretty much every activity we have access to out here. We partner with local schools and are funded largely by grants. Our organization focuses on offering these outdoor opportunities to kids who wouldn't otherwise have the means and training to take part in such activities.
When I started with Outdoor Outreach, I led many of the field activities with students. In my current position, I focus more on the supervising and supporting our coordinators, along with establishing and maintaining relationships with schools to increase the number of students we reach.
Can you tell me about the student population you work with?
Outdoor Outreach partners with middle and high schools, since the founder realized that often the opportunities for such activities are limited for this age group. Most of the students who participate in our activities are language learners and many are recently resettled refugees. As an organization, we are aware that many of the students joining us may have been through incredibly challenging experiences or traumas, and often we are meeting the students for the first time right before an activity. Because of this, we always have someone who knows the students join us, and we operate under the principle of "challenge by choice." We work to create an atmosphere of respect and trust so that students feel comfortable to step out of their comfort zones.
We are continually trying to strengthen our own awareness, respect, and skills to support students in whatever challenges they are bringing with them. For example, we have started implementing resources in our coordinator trainings such as Mental Health First Aid training, which is like first aid training but with a focus on mental health.
Since part of our mission is encouraging kids to try something new. We always have to be aware of what they may be dealing with in their lives, so we want them to feel challenged but supported. It can be scary to scale a large rock for the first time, and this can provoke a feeling of vulnerability in some, so we have to be aware of and sensitive to these feelings and help kids through this. We see the potential for these outdoor opportunities to be a way to help them make connections to nature or to one another and to build their strength to overcome the challenges they face with us, but also in life.
What led you to this work?
I am from a small, homogeneous town in New England. Once entering the teaching program at Northeastern University in Boston, I was drawn to the Urban Education track and upon graduating, I taught in Boston Public Schools (BPS) as a Spanish teacher. I love the work I did in the classroom with students, but I wanted to reach students beyond the content expectations and help them develop into healthy adults. At the time, the high school where I taught was unable to offer any after-school sports. I ran every day after school and I started inviting my students to join me. This grew into the first running club. I still receive messages from club members who have gone on to run marathons or who share updates about their continued enjoyment of running. My heart is in working with diverse adolescents and teens and this experience highlighted for me that I could have a positive impact on students beyond the classroom walls.
After leaving BPS, I worked as a guide for an outdoor travel company leading bike tours throughout the world. I love how this job allowed me to learn so much about various cultures, languages, and how to connect with people even when we are coming from different parts of the world and didn't speak the same language. I believe this holds true with youth too. You can connect with someone on so many different levels beyond verbal communication. I think this can be easier outside the traditional classroom setting.
I try to maintain an open, honest mindset to the work we do. I feel that this sensitivity and awareness needs to extend beyond the linguistic component or differences to an awareness and respect for the various cultures kids are bringing with them as well.
So all of these previous work experiences and life lessons seemed to come together when I connected with Outdoor Outreach and the mission that drives our work.
What is the mission of Outdoor Outreach?
To connect youth to the transformative powers of the outdoors to realize the positive attitude and behavioral changes that help them to become happy, healthy, and successful adults.
What impact have you seen on the youth from their involvement with Outdoor Outreach?
It continues to amaze and inspire me when I see the positive impact on students. We see countless examples of increased self-confidence and a sense of belonging among the kids. We see new friendships form and hear students find their voices. We especially see such growth with the kids who are English language learners. Often, the first time they join us they can be quiet or nervous, but they see that other students will help, either with the physical challenge or even by helping to translate the highlights they want to share at the end of an activity. And over the weeks, we see these kids open up and gain the confidence to take risks. Not only in surfing or climbing, but also in speaking up and within the group. This trickles into every facet of their lives, including school.
It is hard to quantify these gains, but when you see the students' faces and see the positive behavioral changes, we know that this work is helping them to become healthy, happy adults. Our website offers many incredible student testimonials that I encourage people to read, and if possible, donate, so that we continue to help students develop a love for the outdoors and learn about all they are capable of in this world!
To learn more about the work Hanna and her colleagues are doing in San Diego, or to donate to the cause visit Outdooroutreach.org