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Transforming at-risk foster youth through wilderness training

REGION — Foster the Earth was founded with the goal of connecting children and young adults in the foster care system with nature as a way of developing self-reliance and confidence.

Co-founders Erin McBride and Sarah Hughen launched Foster the Earth in 2018, providing a seven-month hiking program that increased in intensity over time and culminated in a weeklong backpacking trip to Mount Whitney and other parts of the Sierras.

This year, the Encinitas-based nonprofit organization kicked off the 2019 program with 22 young people and a very similar plan. The first hike took place in March at Eagle Rock in Warner Springs.

“We’re trying to reach participants at a formative time when learning to get by with only what you can carry on your back and handle on your own two feet can cross over to other aspects of their lives,” Hughen said.

Witnessing firsthand the participants’ newfound confidence and fresh perspectives on both themselves and nature has powered the co-founders through what McBride calls “a labor of love.” Neither McBride nor Hughen nor anyone who works for Foster the Earth gets paid.

Foster the Earth founders and participants trek through the Sierra Nevada Mountains during a weeklong backpacking trip in September 2018 that covered almost 50 miles and included a summiting of Mount Whitney. Photo by Ryder England

The organization runs on 100% volunteer labor, donations and sponsorships.

The majority of participants are between 18 and 24 years old, ages when young adults raised by the foster care system can struggle to transition into steady employment or college.

Lacking a support network and facing multiple hurdles, this population is at a higher risk for homelessness, incarceration, early pregnancy and unemployment than the general population.

Since 2012, the state of California has extended foster care resources to young adults up to age 21 as long as they work, go to school or attend a job-readiness program. Despite the assistance in the form of housing, funding and support services, adults during these transitional years still remain highly vulnerable.

That’s why Foster the Earth — which also offers its program to participants who have experienced homelessness or are considered at-risk for other reasons — can be timely and empowering.

Nabihah Abdulmalik, who successfully completed the 2018 program and continues to participate as a graduate, wrote of the experience, “For years I’ve been struggling to find something that would cure me of emotional scars that kept building up. I tried exploring for solutions that would help me seek what I was missing. Luckily, I found my therapist and her name is MOTHER NATURE.”

Abdulmalik continued, “Without Foster the Earth I wouldn’t have visited her. Because of Foster the Earth, my mind, body and spirit are getting stronger and healthier.”  

Each month the hikes increase in distance and elevation so that participants train slowly and steadily. More weight is added to their backpacks, while training gets incorporated in the form of water filtration, backcountry cooking, Wilderness First Aid and Leave No Trace principles.

“The program provides participants with something consistent to look forward to, and work toward, in lives that are often inconsistent,” Hughen said. She noted that many in the cohort show up nervous the first day and then send texts asking how long it will be before they can all hike together again.

The weeklong trek through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that covers nearly 50 miles and includes a summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, is for participants 18 and older.

Sarah Hughen, co-founder of Foster the Earth, gives participant Nabihah Abdulmalik a supportive hug during the group’s Sierra backpacking trip. Photo by Ryder England

The younger participants ages 12 to 17, most of whom come from San Pasqual Academy — a live-in school for foster teens located in Escondido — are invited to join the day-hiking portion of the program that includes trips to Three Sisters Falls, the Cuyamacas and Palomar Mountain.

McBride was inspired to work with at-risk youth after seeing her grandparents take in more than 100 foster children to their home in Ramona over the years. Some children were placed on an emergency basis for a night or so, while some remained for longer periods such as a year. McBride said she thought of the foster youth staying with her grandparents as being like cousins.  

McBride said she goes into a “protective, motherly mode” while hiking and backpacking with the participants, helping them through the physical pain and the psychological doubt. The goal is for them to emerge believing that if they can do this, they can do anything, she and Hughen shared.  

Ultimately, McBride, Hughen and their team of volunteers hope the program will provide young people with skills and mindsets that they can utilize throughout their lives.

In the process, the Foster the Earth crew also aims to create future wilderness advocates who will want to safeguard the environment after experiencing nature’s ability to both inspire and transform.

This year, a new chapter of Foster the Earth launched in Bozeman, Montana. The organization wants to continue to add chapters throughout the country in order to meet the need for outdoor exploration and the self-discovery it facilitates along the way.

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2 comments

personal injury attorney Atlanta April 30, 2019 at 1:23 pm

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Carey April 30, 2019 at 3:08 pm

Thank you for the kind words! I really appreciate your feedback and agree that the difficulties faced by foster youth and adults merit more exposure. The Coast News website was just overhauled with a new layout and format, which then reverted all view counts to zero. Unfortunately, then, it looks like my articles have had few reads when in actuality the number for each is certainly higher! Thanks again for reaching out.

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