Branching Out

Teens to Trails utilizes Maine’s great wilderness to ignite personal growth in students who wouldn’t otherwise get outdoors.

The number one rule for any outdoor club that partners with Brunswick-based nonprofit Teens to Trails is simple: there should be no expectations. “Everyone has the approach of ‘We have to do these really grand adventures. We have to take our students up Katahdin. We need to go whitewater rafting with them. We need to go winter camping,’” says Sam Andrews, Teen to Trails’ program manager. “I think it’s important for [club advisors] to know it’s not about the big trips and the intimidating outdoor adventures.” More often than not, Andrews explains, students start by going apple picking with their peers, tossing a Frisbee with friends, or “walking out to the back of the school grounds and just seeing what is there.”

Teens to Trails breaks down the barriers that make it difficult for students to get outdoors, whether that’s due to a part-time job, playing a competitive sport, or not having the right gear. The organization partners with teachers to establish outdoor clubs; provides grants to the clubs as well as scholarships to individual teens; advocates for transportation services for their clubs; and collects donations of outdoor equipment that Maine students can freely use. It also organizes annual programs like the Outdoor Leadership Conference, traditionally held at the YMCA Camp of Maine in Winthrop every September, and Adventure Bound, a spring weekend of whitewater rafting and camping in Caratunk, one of Maine’s smallest towns (population: 81) just an hour south of the Canadian border.

In a group of nine high school students who attended a Teens to Trails program in Camden earlier this year, three had never camped before, and none had ever seen a sunrise. “For some of us, it’s no big deal,” says Alicia Heyburn, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Others are like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe I’m doing this!’”

The idea behind Teens to Trails, which now supports more than 83 outdoors clubs at schools across the state, began in 2005 as a tribute to Sara Leone, a 15-year-old adventurer who tragically lost her life in a car accident. In the subsequent months and amid their grief, her parents, Carol and Bob Leone—who had left their jobs with the National Park Service in the Washington, D.C., area to move their family to Wiscasset in 1988—began a community-based fund called Sara’s Scholarship. Still maintained by the organization to this day, each year the scholarship enables one high school sophomore to attend a wilderness trip or outdoor leadership expedition in Maine.

The Leones, who had launched an outdoor club at Wiscasset High School, where Sara and her sister were enrolled, were flooded with support from their community and founded Teens to Trails to help other young adventurers get outside. The nonprofit continued to grow, one high school outdoor club at a time, before opening up its programs to middle schoolers; today, Teens to Trails is looking beyond school clubs and working with Maine’s Association of Parks and Recreation to pilot outdoor programs at six community centers across the state.

Teens to Trails’ mission is to erase the exclusivity of the outdoors by providing resources for young adults to connect with the natural world—and one another—in a noncompetitive environment regardless of their socioeconomic status or outdoor experience. “We don’t try to create the lone wolf or the solo expeditioner or the peak bagger,” says Heyburn. “It’s our vision statement: all teens have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors together.”

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