With WTA's Help, Youth Ambassadors Share Their Love for Trails
Through WTA's Youth Ambassador Program, young people who love to hike and volunteer gain valuable skills and share their love for trails
By Rachel Wendling
“How do we reach more teens interested in outdoor volunteer opportunities? Especially those who don’t know about WTA?” These questions were asked to a group of WTA board members and two high school volunteers who made up WTA’s youth committee. “I love talking to people about WTA,” one of the youth said. “Teach me what to say and I’ll present to my classmates. My environmental science teacher even gives out extra credit if students volunteer, so I’m sure he will let me present in his class.”
And with that, the idea of the Youth Ambassador Program was conceived.
In the four years since Washington Trails Association started a Youth Ambassador Program, we’ve been amazed and inspired by the young people who have devoted their time to being caretakers for our state’s trails. The program provides leadership training and opportunities to young WTA volunteers. The teens share their love of hiking through a project of their choice.
Since 2013, 65 youth ambassadors have talked to more than 2,800 students in more than 30 schools across the state about volunteer opportunities with WTA. The ambassador program has taken our youth in many directions. Take a look at how two different volunteers are making the most of the opportunity.
Thomas Meade credits his parents’ diverse background in outdoor recreation for getting him involved with the hiking community. As an avid backpacker and skier, Thomas is constantly on the lookout for more ways to fuel his passion for the outdoors. He has spent nearly two weeks volunteering with WTA and devotes his spare time to helping out with King County Search and Rescue.
Thomas was drawn to trail work for its perfect combination of manual labor, beautiful places and great people. After showing his passion for trails during his first week-long Youth Volunteer Vacation at Ingalls Creek, Thomas was invited to join the 2016 youth ambassador cohort.
“I attended the summit and learned all about WTA’s mission, outreach and stewardship,” he says. “The experience definitely started me [off] on the right foot, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it this year.”
During his year as an ambassador, Thomas is hoping to combine two of his passions: trails and photography. He plans to attend several volunteer work parties not only for the trail work but also to document the experience through photojournalism and videography. Be on the lookout for some of Thomas’s digital content on the WTA social media feeds throughout the year! Eventually, Thomas dreams of finding a job in the outdoors and hopes to use the experience he gains while serving as a youth ambassador in that pursuit.
Tzuria Falkenburg was part of the first group of youth ambassadors in 2012, and she still maintains a strong connection to WTA, even now that she’s graduated.
Tzuria is a longtime WTA volunteer; her first day of trail work took place more than eight years ago, before the youth ambassador program had even begun. Always fond of the natural world and exploring new places, Tzuria felt right at home with the WTA community and joined us for eight youth Volunteer Vacations during her high school years. When Tzuria joined us as a youth ambassador, she had already spent more than 300 hours on trail with us.
Being one of the first ambassadors, Tzuria was saddled with a daunting task—figuring out how the Youth Ambassador Program should work. She spent the year designing posters, presenting to peers and making trails in the Issaquah Alps. She even included WTA in her senior project, leading a trail work party for elementary school students and parents in a park near her house.
“Volunteering on trail crews helps hikers like myself build a relationship of responsibility and care for the lands and trails they use,” she says. “My experiences on trail crews have made me a more considerate and informed hiker.”
Although her term as an ambassador is over, Tzuria continues to stay connected with WTA through adult Volunteer Vacations over her summer breaks. She’s currently majoring in Middle Eastern studies and French at Tufts University. Her recent hiking endeavors include the French Alps and the Moroccan High Atlas Mountains.
“I think WTA has shaped my relationship with the outdoors, giving me greater understanding of the ecosystems I hike through and the trails I hike on,” she says.
Tzuria credits her involvement with the WTA youth program for teaching her the leadership and outdoor skills that helped her land her dream job this past summer as a trip director for a camp in the Cascades, where she led hikes and helped young campers plan hiking and camping trips. After her graduation this spring, Tzuria hopes to become a certified sawyer, learn Spanish and use her free time to travel, hike and volunteer with local trail crews.
Each year, new teens become ambassadors and those who graduate from high school transition to program alumni. At WTA, we are grateful for all that our youth ambassadors have done and continue to do to support our mission.
“The Youth Ambassador Program continues to connect young people to WTA and engage them beyond trail stewardship,” says Krista Dooley, youth programs director. “There is still a lot of work to do, as I hope that one day WTA will have youth ambassadors in every region of the state and young people all across Washington will have access to trails.”
Learn more about WTA’s youth program at wta.org/volunteer/youth.