The offices of the Women’s Wilderness Institute are a cozy, if cluttered, collection of relics from their first eight years of business.
A scale sits by one desk, a pink feather boa glued to the edge, with foam cutouts spelling out “I love me” and nearly obscuring the scale’s needle. On one wall, a poster of traced handprints contains encouraging phrases and thank-you notes from girls who have participated in the program. Donated sleeping bags hang from a back room ceiling, dormant in the wintertime but ready to be taken out on the trail in the summer. A small pantry hides floor-to-ceiling shelves haphazardly stocked with non-perishable food for the trail, such as mashed potatoes, soup and freeze-dried vegetables.
But the local non-profit’s mission is much more straightforward than the office’s decorations-build the confidence and courage of girls and women so they may step forward into strong leadership positions.
The Institute’s offices, located off Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder, weren’t always so lush with gear and food for their summer expeditions. Up until about a year ago, the organization’s cramped and crowded space on Walnut Street wasn’t close to enough space to keep up with the “exponential” growth and increasing pace of donations the Institute was experiencing, Marketing Director Wendy Gruenberg said.
When the Institute began in 1998, it was a homespun one-functioning mainly for a circle of founder Laura Tyson’s Outward Bound contacts and operating out of a central headquarters in her living room. Since then, more than 2,300 women have participated in the Institute’s programs and in 2006 alone, around 250 women ventured out with a team of some of the Institute’s 32 field staff members during the summer months, the prime months for the Institute’s programs.
The idea for the organization was borne when Tyson, armed with an “incredible love for wilderness,” saw a niche in the outdoors expedition market, Gruenberg said. Tyson, in her instruction with Outward Bound, found the differences between men and women on co-ed outdoor trips were dramatic.
“Men gravitate to leadership,” said Gruenberg. “Women, for whatever reason, didn’t get the full richness of the experience.”
Gruenberg attributes this to the way females are socialized from childhood. “They could use a little push,” she said, when it comes to taking active leadership roles.
For the Institute, that push comes in the form of two distinct branches within their organization-the women’s program, which caters to adults seeking adventure and community in the presence of other women, and the girls’ program, which aims to leave pre-teen and teenage girls in their comfort zone, surrounded with other girls.
In this respect, Gruenberg said, adolescent girls are given the opportunity to combat a “crisis of confidence” that is all too common for girls to experience as their self-esteem suffers in middle and high school.
“There’s a lot of power that comes from not feeling pressured and feeling free to speak your mind,” she said.
Alys Hansen, 17, of Boulder, first came to know the girls’ program in seventh grade, when representatives from the Institute came to her high school, New Vista High School.
“Girls were like, ‘That sounds stupid’, but I thought it was cool,” she said.
Hansen received one of the program’s scholarships and traveled to the Snowy Mountain Range in Wyoming for an adventure camp. One of the defining moments of the program for her, she said, was when she lost her group temporarily.
“I couldn’t see them anywhere and I panicked,” she said. “But I found the strength within me to be okay. Everything you learn allows you to support yourself,” she said.
Hansen has since returned for five trips with the Institute, and is designing a backpacking and outdoors organization for deaf and hard of hearing individuals for her senior project at New Vista. She said that the wilderness gives people the opportunity to “see people in their truest form for who they are, especially when it’s just girls.”
Gruenberg said the program provides learning opportunities in the “vastness and beauty” of the wilderness that simply cannot be found in a classroom or a familiar setting.
“You get a real different perspective on yourself when you’re hungry, it’s time for dinner, and you don’t know how to turn on the stove,” she said, laughing.
The program, Gruenberg said, is primarily volunteer-driven, and some volunteers are participants in the women’s program who return in following years as guides on other trips.
Ruth Barrientos-Wood of Boulder returned in summer 2006 to volunteer as a guide on two different girls’ trips after climbing Longs Peak with the women’s program.
“I think that the fact that it was a female-only group fostered a relaxed climate-no one was super-competitive-and allowed us to talk candidly about anything and everything,” she said.
Gruenberg said in addition to participants, more business-oriented individuals like accountants often donate their time to the non-profit as well, because all of the organization’s funds go back into their program in the form of scholarships or operating expenses.
“Part of the reason we’re a non-profit is because we want to make it feasible for as many people as possible” to participate, she said. The organization offers full and partial scholarships to girls like Hansen.