The Classroom Outdoors
From building a half pipe skate ramp at Fun Fun Fun Fest to perfecting a golf swing to hiking the Tarryall Mountains, Project LOOP, Golf in Schools and Explore Austin are three remarkable organizations that have taken the classroom outdoors for children across Central Texas. Through active and creative endeavors, they aim to teach their young students more than kayaking skills or the ideal swing—these three programs are nurturing young leaders through hands-on experiences that last a lifetime.
Golf in Schools
Every afternoon, golf instructor Jaret Lane steps onto the course—albeit one with vibrantly-colored golf balls, a Velcro target and a dozen children on an elementary school campus. With fellow PGA member Aaron Bergman, Lane launched Golf in Schools two years ago to make golf accessible to young children of all socioeconomic backgrounds. “We bring the game to the kids,” he notes. “Many of them have never touched a club before, and our objective is to let them know that golf can be a lifelong game.”
Golf in Schools partners with elementary schools in the Austin area and across the country, introducing young children to the pleasure and character-building skills of golf through afterschool, spring break and summer programs. Over the course of a six- to eight-week curriculum, students work with a variety of clubs, balls and training equipment—all provided by Golf in Schools—to develop a well-rounded understanding of the game. Ultimately, Lane says, he hopes to prepare his students for a sport they can cherish for a lifetime: “They can walk right onto a course and know exactly what to do and how it works.” Despite the short duration of the program, Golf in Schools’ use of the revolutionary “Club-Focused” approach—emphasizing the position of the club and letting the body follow— allows children to grasp the increasingly challenging elements of the course and components of a perfect swing. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment,” Lane observes. “It’s a process of self-fulfillment."
At the heart of the Golf in Schools program, however, is an understanding of golf as an invaluable educational experience. “There are many life skills inherent in the game,” Lane observes. “There’s goal-setting, personal challenges and teamwork, but a big part of golf is honesty and integrity." He high-fives a boy who takes a clean, elegant swing. “Golf is our way of teaching kids these life lessons.”
In the summer of 2006, Explore Austin founder Jamie Matthews, CEO Todd Hanna and Chairman of the Board Rusty Stein mentored fifteen underprivileged sixth-grade students on a hiking trip to Wyoming. Today, that inaugural Class of 2012 looks forward to a bright future, as they prepare to attend college and become program mentors for younger “Explorers.” Over the past six years, Explore Austin has continued its commitment to the philosophy developed on that first trip to Wyoming: “It wasn’t just about going hiking,” Hanna observes. “It was about being action-oriented, courageous, an excellent teammate and a strong communicator.” Explore Austin thus centers its mentorship program about these four fundamental principles, which comprise the innovative ACES framework that supports Explorers from middle school through high school and onward.
Throughout the school year, Explore Austin mentors host monthly Saturday events, from community service projects to geocaching, which culminate in a week-long Summer Wilderness Trip. Since the program’s inception, mentors and Explorers have kayaked off the San Juan islands, hiked the Rocky Mountain National Park, climbed the Tarryall Mountain Range and more. “Each one,” says Matthews, “is a trip of a lifetime,” challenging Explorers to use the ACES framework in their adventures, whether they’re working together to pitch a tent or striving for the summit. Stein adds, “[The outdoors] is a fantastic classroom: we’ve been through hail storms, snowfall, lightning storms—all those things that challenge and provide you with experiences that you can use for life.”
For Matthews, Hanna and Stein, this year marks a farewell to the oldest class of explorers, as they reflect on the leaps their mentees have made: “We realized they don’t need us anymore,” Matthews remarks of the explorers who virtually led their final hiking trip in Colorado. "It was a bittersweet feeling.” One such Explorer, who will be attending the prestigious Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in the fall, remarked, “These three guys are more than mentors to me and the Class of 2012— they are father figures. And for that, we explorers are grateful."
Project LOOP founder Brent Humphreys still recalls the first time he realized that his love of photography could translate into a career: a chance encounter took Humphreys to a commercial studio, where the photographer was shooting for Neiman Marcus and Horchow catalogs. 45 days later, Humphreys was in a car, bound for California, and since then, he has traveled the world, working with the likes of Annie Lebovitz, Mark Seliger, GQ and Rolling Stone. “The next chapter of my life,” he says, “is how I can do that for somebody else.” To that effect, Humphreys launched Project LOOP —Lessons On and Off the Pavement— last year to offer young students a springboard for pursuing their creative passions.
Based in Taylor, Texas, Project LOOP mentors a diverse group of 19 young students, including two cheerleaders, two powerlifters and a handful of BMX enthusiasts, all united by a shared desire to explore creativity beyond the classroom. Every month, Humphreys partners with local creative professionals to develop innovative, hands-on excursions for Project LOOP participants, from building a half pipe for Fun Fun Fun Fest to designing graphics for Transmission Entertainment. Recently, Humphreys partnered with Joshua Bingaman of Progress Coffee and graphic designers Chris Bilheimer and Christian Helms to introduce Project LOOP students to the coffee-roasting process, during which the children roasted their own beans, designed coffee bags and marketed them for donations. “This is a very empowering thing,” says Humphreys. “It can be monumental to have hands-on experience and to be able to walk and talk with someone who loves what they do. You can’t really put a price on that.”
At the same time, Humphreys notes that Project LOOP’s impact isn’t simply confined to the organization’s participants. “Our partners tell us that working with Project LOOP gives them a renewed appreciation for what they do—it makes them feel young again,” he notes. “Part of our mantra is to lead by example, and in some ways, we’re educating a whole community.”