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Youth Leadership Ambassadors: A Pathway For Youth

January 6th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

This last August I was grateful to fill a newly created position at the North Cascades Institute, that of College Access Coordinator. The position was specifically created to support and strengthen opportunities for participants of our Youth Leadership Adventures and Mountain School programs. The AmeriCorps position is made possible by the Washington Campus Compact “College Access Corps” grant. This grant is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and supports local economically disadvantaged youth to become more academically engaged in their education, increase preparedness for post-secondary education, and become more knowledgeable about the college application and financial aid process.

The grant allows selected college campuses, nonprofits (the North Cascades Institute!), or grade 4-12 educational institutions to place an AmeriCorps member (me!) to help coordinate college access programs in their local communities. While I have been graciously accepted into the closely knit Institute community, I have had the opportunity to serve on the planning committee of the Northwest Youth Leadership Summit, present a workshop at said conference (“College: Planning For What’s Next & What To Do Now), volunteer at the Migrant Youth Leadership Conference, attend multiple Kulshan Creek field trips, and participate in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee meetings.

While all of these opportunities stand out in my mind as highlights of my first five months in this position, getting a new program extension off the ground and running has been the most fulfilling and rewarding aspect of my work. The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County.

While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trips, and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Our first field trip of the year is in collaboration with Skagit Land Trust to remove invasive species on Mt. Vernon’s Little Mountain. Examples of some of the other scheduled field trips include visits to local community colleges and universities, trips sponsored by National Park Service Park Rangers, and an overnight trip to our Environmental Learning Center for a stewardship weekend.

14 local Skagit and Whatcom County high school students have been selected to participate in this pilot school year opportunity. The students attend 8 different high schools including Burlington-Edison, Mount Vernon, Concrete, Mount Baker, Bellingham, Sehome, Lynden, and Meridian.

Having never previously worked with youth in an environmental education setting previously, I am looking forward to collaborating with Institute staff to help facilitate Ambassador events. Additionally, I am eager to share my background in college access work with students, many of whom aim to be the first in their family to attend college.

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassadors: A Pathway For Youth


An Open Letter to the 16th Cohort

June 24th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

If you are new to or unfamiliar with the North Cascades Institute, there are a few bits of jargon that need to be explained:

  • Western Washington University has a graduate residency program where students spend their first year at the Institute (often shorted to NCI). They then finish their degree at the University.
  • Early summer is the transition time where the older cohort spends the summer working through Leadership Tracks, while the younger cohort arrives to the mountains for the first time together.
  • The current older cohort is the 15th, and the younger 16th. Often this is shortened to C15 and C16.

Even if you are not a part of C16, this letter is a great opportunity to learn about C15, Leadership Tracks and the residency as a whole. On to the letter!


Dear C16,

Welcome to the North Cascades ecoregion! If you have lived here your whole life or if this is your first time here, you are going to get to know more about the life in these mountains than you ever thought possible. Between hiking, tracking, teaching and paddling, in just a year this place will feel like home.

» Continue reading An Open Letter to the 16th Cohort


Path for Youth: Indira Mejia-Chavez

April 29th, 2015 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Indira Mejia-Chavez was born in Mexico, but her mom raised her and her two younger siblings in the Skagit valley, where she lives today. Her first experience with North Cascades Institute was in 2004 when she attended Mountain School with her fifth grade class. Now 21, Indira still has a vivid memory of that first experience with North Cascades Institute.

“Mountain School was a whole new world I’d never seen before…and it was pretty cool,” she remembers. “We were exposed to a natural setting, we made our own bracelets, tasted healthy food that we didn’t know could be made (because you know, it has to be bad for you to taste so good)!”

She recalls how going to Mountain School brought everyone in her class together more. The cliques that were already starting to form in her class were broken up by the trail groups; everyone was able to mesh together and bond.

And her favorite activity at Mountain School? Water quality testing!

“I really liked putting two and two together,” she explains, “if the water isn’t producing animals, then the water isn’t good quality. It just made sense. I still remember the guy that was leading us told me, ‘You’re very smart, you could be a scientist.’”

For a time, Indira thought she wanted to be a community police officer, but she realized that she wants to do something she loves, and share that love with others. Her current academic and career plans are at the intersection of biology, teaching, and water quality. Although she is taking a break from school after several terms at Western Washington University, her current academic and career plans are at the intersection of biology, teaching, and water

Although Indira’s initial experience with Mountain School made a big impression, she didn’t stop there. In 2009, she participated in North Cascades Institute’s North Cascades Wild program. Two years later she was back at the Institute for our Cascades Climate Challenge program (the two programs are now combined into our Youth Leadership Adventures program).

Between the two courses, Indira spent over a month in the backcountry of the North Cascades pushing herself to overcome the challenges that everyone experiences when placed far outside their comfort zone and the familiarity of home and family.

“When I went on North Cascades Wild,” she says, “I spent a lot of time focusing on the negative – this is so hard, I wish we’d take a break – I complained a lot! With Cascades Climate Challenge, I knew what to expect and didn’t want to miss out on anything. It was so beautiful and I didn’t want to get distracted. I grew so much from the opportunity to lead others.”

» Continue reading Path for Youth: Indira Mejia-Chavez

it's done!

Non-Profit Ninjas Slay the Behemoth

March 12th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

In the wintertime interim between teaching Mountain School in the fall and teaching Mountain School in the spring, graduate students in the North Cascades Institute Masters in Education program are skiing Mt. Baker’s slopes, exploring glassy blue glaciers, and visiting their old summertime haunts in Bellingham.

When, that is, they’re not hard at work on their non-profit project, something that tends to be, well, relatively rare.

The opportunity to design a non-profit organization is one that attracts several of the graduate students to this unique program. Earning this degree is not just about becoming a better naturalist, honing one’s teaching skills and developing intriguing curriculum. It is also a way to learn about designing a mission-driven business.

This winter, the eight members of graduate Cohort 13 created three non-profit models. Though these are a hypothetical practice, they can also be intended for the “real world” post-graduation. Several current non-profit organizations, such as Bellingham’s Wild Whatcom, started out as graduate student assignments; this year, Sarah Stephens created the Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition with her sister, a graduate of Western. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Though still “just” hypothetical, their project has been intended from the start to become a viable local non-profit business.

Half of the C13 Foundation: Saul Weisberg offers feedback to the graduate students while Dr. John Miles and Jason Ruvelson (Finance Director of North Cascades Institute) look on. Photo by Katherine Renz.

At the end of our two months learning, drafting, revising and compiling our projects, we present a grant proposal to the “C13 Foundation”. This body is a hypothetical foundation dedicated to “improving the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest” through focusing on education about the environment through interdisciplinary, community-based projects. It is composed of our teachers, Saul Weisberg, the Executive Director of North Cascade Institute; Dr. John Miles, professor and former Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Huxley College; and various members of the North Cascades Institute staff. Each non-profit group has their “final” — an hour-long interview to assess how well their grant proposal aligns with the Foundation’s mission.

Curious as to what our recent missions, visions and strategies are? The following is a brief description of our three projects. –Katherine Renz

The Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition (BARC)

The Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition works with outdoor leisure organizations and other interested community businesses to facilitate recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. BARC’s mission is to promote empowerment for individuals with disabilities, creating a sense of community for all. Our vision is an inclusive community that promotes access to outdoor recreation for all bodies and all abilities. 

BARC by Sarah Stephens

About 13% of the Whatcom County population identifies as having a disability. This computes to 25,815 people. According to a University of Washington study on disabilities in the state, 55% of people with disabilities reported that they are less likely to participate in community activities, including outdoor recreation, as compared to only 7% of people who do not have a disability. Many people with disabilities are often excluded from community interaction, stigmatized and need additional support. Individuals with chronic, or recently acquired disabilities often have to pave their own path to when it comes to involvement in recreational opportunities.

The Bellingham Adapted Recreation Coalition (BARC) aims to be a community resource that will partner with disability and health organizations, other recreational programs, universities and local businesses to create a truly integrated recreational community. Our flagship program, ‘Piping Sailors’, advocates for individuals and groups in their pursuit of recreation experiences by helping them adapt sailing to their ability level.

Adaptive sailing builds self-confidence that helps participants overcome other daily challenges. It promotes a more positive outlook on life, increases teamwork and leadership skills and benefits the physical condition of participant. Sailboats can be adapted for people with any level of ability. Through BARC’s partnership with Bellingham Parks and Recreation and the Community Boating Center, ‘Piping Sailors’ provides people a welcoming and inclusive environment to become community boaters. In addition, creating a welcoming and inclusive community means distilling the negative perspectives of people with disabilities amongst the general public. BARC’s DisAbility Awareness Campaign community outreach initiatives serve to reframe how people perceive what it means to be disabled. This program builds a supportive community that will further BARC’s mission and vision to provide recreation for every body. Designed by Sarah and Katie Stephens. Post written by Sarah Stephens.

BARKGraduate student Sarah Stephens with her sister, Western Washington University alumni and sailing teacher, Katie Stephens, are hoping to put their Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition project into practice.

 nonprofit love

Interview day! Though all three groups compete for funding from the same hypothetical grant foundation, we support each other —  unhypothetically! Photo by Katherine Renz.

Adventure Bus

Learn! Serve! Play!

Adventure Bus strengthens communities by connecting teens with their peers and place through education, public service, and outdoor excursions.

High school incompletion is an epidemic. Last year, over 2,800 students dropped out of the Tacoma School District alone. Each of those students is now 3.5 times more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime. On average, they will each earn $10,000 less than their diploma-holding classmates every year.  Academic retention is not the only struggle this community faces. In the three high schools we are serving, 77% of students receive free or reduced meals.  Adventure Bus’s integrated approach of experiential learning, community involvement and outdoor recreation can help remedy these epidemics.

Our organization allows participants the opportunity to discover and develop leadership skills and works to help them understand their value and worth to the community as a whole.  We use mentorship to create a positive atmosphere for teens and provides a network of support from peers and mentors.  By offering hands-on, engaging opportunities for participants to learn about the world around them, we will show that education can come in many forms.  We also support our students by providing them with a balanced lunch and two healthy snacks every day to address issues of food insecurity.

Adventure Connections, our inaugural program is a ten week, 50-day course that provides teens with the opportunity to spend their summer learning, serving and playing throughout Pierce County. The Adventure Connections curriculum follows weekly themes that approach each topic from an educational, service-learning, and recreational perspective.  Learning activities focus on natural and ecological processes to promote deeper understanding of the local environment.  Our service projects focus on strengthening the Tacoma community by addressing issues of identified need, ecological restoration and neighborhood connectivity.Recreational activities help teens foster a sense of place exciting them about the natural world.  Connecting teens to their peers and place will motivate and empower participants to make Pierce County a better place, in turn building a supportive, inclusive community from the ground up. Designed by Kaci Darsow, Katie Komorowski, and Samantha Hale. Post written by Hale.

Adventure BusGraduate students Samantha Hale, Katie Komorowski and Kaci Darsow get ready to go adventure with some Tacoma teens. Photo by Debra Brodie.
Playlandia!The C13 Foundation reviews each non-profit’s grant and looks over their bound, final projects, which are composed of dozens of documents including case statements, strategic plans and board biographies. Photo by Katherine Renz.


Learn the way nature intended

Do you remember your favorite outdoor place to play when you were little? Maybe it was a secret fort, a vacant lot of tall grasses and red-winged blackbirds, or a simple suburban backyard transformed through a child’s eyes into a magical realm. Today, life is different for most modern children, and the problems they face are only increasing, including hours devoted to sitting behind a screen, rising obesity levels, and over-scheduling of structured activities and lessons. Stranger danger, ubiquitous liability concerns, and towns designed for cars, not people, all contribute to fewer opportunities for the free exploration of nature, and of themselves.

Playlandia!, a five acre nature playground located in the heart of Mount Vernon, WA, exists to alleviate these pressures. Our mission is to connect children, teens, and adults to the natural world and their community through providing a safe, imaginative playscape with opportunities for stewardship, experiential education, and youth leadership. In lieu of swing sets and plastic slides, Playlandia! has trees to climb, mud in which to squish, tools and tree branches with which to build forts, a small butterfly and food garden, and natural features such as winding pathways, a froggy pond, and boulders and logs to hide behind.

In addition to offering a “free play” membership, we have several programs, from Tierra for Toddlers and the high school-based EcoLeaders to our flagship After School Adventures for 3rd-5th graders. With trained naturalists on site and leading activities, children are encouraged to ask questions about the natural world if they choose, and/or they can participate in self-directed adventure and learn the way nature intended – through experience, exploration, and FUN! Get outside and play! Designed by Tyler Chisholm, Elissa Kobrin, Annabel Connelly, and Katherine Renz. Post written by Renz.

nonprofit adviceGraduate student and Adventure Bus Executive Director Kaci Darsow offers their anxious fellow grads some worthy advice pre-interview. Basically, look good and talk loud. Photo by Katherine Renz.
Leading photo: (from L to R): Professor John Miles, Saul Weisberg, Susan Morgan, Sam Hale, Katie Komorowski, Kaci Darsow, Sarah Stephens, Katie Stephens, Katherine Renz, Tyler Chisholm, Annabel Connelly. Not pictured is Elissa Kobrin. Big smiles signify a quarter-long project, bound and completed!

Youth Leadership Adventures 2014: now accepting applications

February 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

North Cascades Institute is excited to announce that Youth Leadership Adventures are now accepting applications for Summer 2014. This transformative program features a range of summer adventures for high school-aged students ages 14-18 in the wilderness of the North Cascades, as well as a fall Youth Leadership Conference, year-round mentorship and stewardship opportunities.

During 8- or 16-day summer expeditions, students canoe, camp, backpack and complete service projects in the North Cascades backcountry – including Ross, Diablo and Baker Lakes – while receiving hands-on training in outdoor leadership, field science, communication skills and public speaking. 

This partnership program with North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest connects youth to wild places while instilling a sense of responsibility and ownership so they can make a difference in their home communities. Participants will make new friends, gain confidence and leadership skills, enhance their resume and college applications, earn community service hours, and explore the North Cascades wilderness, all while having the best summer of their life!

As part of North Cascades Institute’s commitment to making our programs accessible to students from all backgrounds, Youth Leadership Adventures are offered on a sliding scale based on participant needs and generous scholarships are available. North Cascades Institute will work with every family to find a price they can afford.

More information and applications are available at Applications are due March 28 and must include Participant Information and Essay Questions, Reference Form and Scholarship Application (if applicable).


Please contact North Cascades Institute if you have questions: (360) 854-2599 or

cedarosa flag

The Cedarosas Take On North Cascades National Park

September 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

They met on July 17, 2013, not quite sure what to expect. Six talented young women, all alumni of programs like North Cascades Institute’s Cascades Climate Challenge and North Cascades Wild, as well as the Student Conservation Association, met up with three North Cascades Institute instructors to embark on the Institute’s newest course: Leadership Corps. Leadership Corps is a 31-day course for 18-22 year old students who are interested in exploring careers in public lands and expanding their leadership, backcountry travel, and work skills. The Corpsmembers spent four weeks in the North Cascades National Park Complex completing trail maintenance and ecological restoration projects alongside Institute and National Park employees.  This year, the crew happened to be all female, and as they explored the vast beauty of the National Park they also explored what it means to be a woman in a non-traditional career: a trail dog. This is the story of the Cedarosas….

group by truckThe crew on their last day in the field in Stehekin, WA. From left to right: Sahara (Instructor), Sage, Annabelle, Mohawk, Monica, Yadira, Karina, Sabrina (Instructor), and Kevin (Instructor) underneath

Their journey began in the northern unit of the National Park on Ross Lake. After a trip on the Park’s faithful mint green boat, the Mule, the crew set out to their first destination. Straining and struggling with heavy packs most were unaccustomed to, the first leg of the journey was long, hot, and buggy.

on the trailTaking a break on the first day of hiking. Everyone’s pack was well over 50 lbs!

» Continue reading The Cedarosas Take On North Cascades National Park

robby fruit

Life after grad school for an environmental educator and naturalist

June 13th, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

ROBBY ASTROVE graduated from North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed program in 2005 as part of the third Cohort of students. He is currently the Park Ranger at the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve located in the Arabia Mountain,  National Heritage Area, Lithonia, GA.

Wow, 10 years have passed already.  Even though time and geography have advanced and changed, there are a few things that really stuck from North Cascade Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed program.  Time and time again these nuggets have provided answers and advisement for over a decade while at the same time provided teachable moments and inspiration to keep doing and learning more. And I’ll admit, the Each-One-Teach-One activity I learned at Mountain School in 2003 still gets regular rotation in my programs.

The vision, philosophy and pedagogy of the grad program is so grand and relevant to the needs of our professional field, that the combination of what’s possible afterward is infinite. North Cascades Institute planted that seed and provided a road map for how to create and sustain a practice that engages people in planetary healing and transformational change.  That sounds pretty dreamy I know, but an important part of realizing that ambition, and perhaps challenging and less exciting, is finding the financial resources to do so.  It took some time for these skills and lessons to finally materialize into practice. My career continues to expand as I explore more at the intersection of environmental education, philanthropy, and urban agriculture:

» Continue reading Life after grad school for an environmental educator and naturalist