Stepping Up: High-altitude hikers help at-risk youth

Erin tackles the West Coast Trail on a 2008 expedition. Photo courtesy Take a Hike.


The future for some of Vancouver’s at-risk youth is a little brighter thanks to an alternative high school program’s unique approach to connecting with youth through adventure-based learning and life skills training.


The Take a Hike program is delivered in a learning environment combining traditional classrooms at John Oliver Secondary School with the majestic B.C. wilderness. Funded by Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation, the program engages 44 at-risk youth per year through a combination of outdoor activities, academics, counselling and community involvement.


The adventure-based learning focus is an unusual model, but it’s one that’s proven to work. Take a Hike has helped hundreds of youth like Erin (last name withheld), who graduated from the program in 2009, to develop life skills and self-confidence in a challenging yet supportive environment. Navigating through a rough teenage life, Erin found Take a Hike was her only remaining option short of dropping out. After being kicked out of two public schools and failing to enter another alternative school, she ended up at Take a Hike and discovered their alternative strategy worked better for her than anything else she had experienced.


“I learned a ton of life skills there that I still use every day,” asserts Erin, who as a program alumnus was awarded a scholarship for post-secondary education in 2011. “Learning how to be on time for things, even learning how to cook and clean, and just be accountable for your actions - it was really valuable.”


The program’s unconventional delivery includes tailored academics, outdoor survival training and a minimum of one full day outside per week, but where it really gets interesting is the three multi-day outdoor expeditions every year. Engaging in outdoor activities can trigger troubling sensations like anxiety, worry and self-doubt, but the decisively supportive environment provided by peers and staff, whom Erin describes as “like a second family,” creates powerful therapeutic opportunities to address students’ complex personal issues.


“I really liked going on the expeditions, and hiking every Thursday,” beams Erin. “My favourite memory was probably getting counselling in the middle of nowhere, like next to a creek, sitting on a rock. I was sitting with [Take a Hike’s clinical therapist] Pete [Prediger], and I told him, ‘You’ve got a pretty cool office,’” she laughs.


These powerful and often lifechanging expeditions are partially funded by one major fundraiser: Take a Hike’s annual Moonlight Snowshoe event at Mount Seymour, where participants commit to raising money and then meet in late February for an evening mountain adventure of their own. Last year’s event raised over $57,000 to provide students like Erin with equipment, training, and life experiences they will never forget.


Today, between working with East Vancouver kids for the Boys and Girls Club of Vancouver and playing lots of soccer, Erin wonders how things would be different had Take a Hike never entered the picture. “I don’t think I would have graduated, and I would have missed out on a lot,” she reflects. “It really changed my life.”


Registration for this year’s Take a Hike’s Moonlight Snowshoe event on February 26 is closed. Donations to support the student’s multi-day expeditions are still accepted. For more information, and to see the list of donation incentives, visit

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