WILD EARTH: HAPPY CAMPERS IN THE ELEMENTS

POSTED: 03 Jul 2014 | BY: KATHLEEN WILLCOX
In an ideal world, summer camp is an escape from school-year monotony into the woods — a time for children to run free and tap in to the natural world. Six New Paltz-area parents founded Wild Earth, a nonprofit that offers nature-based programs, with the idea of connecting youth to the great outdoors, creating a culture of mentoring, and building a bucolic community resource. The founders had no specific background in camping, youth education or the environment. “We started Wild Earth 11 years ago because we were a group of parents who wanted to bring back the idea of a truly wholesome summer camp experience where kids could wander and play outside in the woods,” said David Brownstein, executive director of Wild Earth. “We wanted them to have the guidance of strong role models who truly value mentorship and teaching.” Wild Earth was founded with Mr. Brownstein’s own memories of the too-often wasted summer days of childhood spent searching for guided activities and answers to questions about the world around him — and the firm conviction that he could create rich, immersive summer experiences for his children. “I grew up playing outside in our backyard and the woods a lot,” Mr. Brownstein remembers. “And that’s great. But I remember really craving mentors and guides who could shape the days more and answer questions I had about trees or plants or the world in general. The idea of sending my own children to a camp with a rundown pool, to be met by instructors and counselors who didn’t really want to be there and who just saw this as a summer job made me really sad.” Instead, Wild Earth aims to provide a venue in which children, teens and adults can participate in their own personal safaris, taking time to get in touch with their inner strengths and weaknesses, and connecting with plants and animals in their natural habitats.  In turn, this helps them engage more fully with the world at large.
WildEarthSafari On Safari in the Catskills. | Photo: Wild Earth's website.
The organization’s tagline is “strengthening connections through experiences in nature” and its mission is equally broad and ambitious. Wild Earth isn’t just a summer camp — it’s more of a philosophical organization with a variety of programs, from camps and afterschool programs for youth, to wilderness clubs and “edible landscaping” classes for adults. Many participants are based in the Hudson Valley but others hail from New York City and beyond. Each of the programs celebrates the experience of being outdoors. Wild Earth’s Dawn Song Village Homeschool Program weekly program for youths 7 and older, for example, creates a customized nature, science, somatic and arts-based curriculum that allows a child’s passion to lead the study. Over a few weeks of day sessions and one overnight, participants learn how to identify ecological phenomena, construct temporary shelters, build safe fires, purify water and more. Check out some of Wild Earth’s other programs here.
WildEarth_Fire Learning to build a fire. | Photo: Wild Earth's website.
The goal is to help participants in camps and workshops achieve a greater understanding of their place in the world and more confidence in navigating it, Mr. Brownstein said. The ratio of students to teachers varies depending on the age of participants and the type of activity, but it often approaches 3:1, allowing real one-on-one experiences for children who may need or want more guidance and instruction. Wild Earth employs what Mr. Brownstein calls “the questioning method” of instruction, where if a camper asks about a tree, an instructor will respond with questions of their own, to probe how, why and what the camper wants to learn that minute, that hour, that day. The instructors often learn as much as the campers on an average day, Mr. Brownstein notes. Each program attempts to create a multi-generational community of teachers and mentors who use their varying life experiences to instruct participants. Many of Wild Earth’s best instructors are former campers or after-school program participants, and all are selected based on their commitment to “ecological, social and cultural resilience … adventure and fun” Mr. Brownstein said. Wild Earth is run by a volunteer executive board and three full-time administrators (including Mr. Brownstein) who aim to spend as much, or more, time in the field as at a desk. Mr. Brownstein spent 12 years as a wealth advisor on Wall Street before deciding to found Wild Earth and spend more time with his wife and boys (Kole, now a 19-year old lead instructor at Wild Earth; Jeremy, 16, also an instructor; and Ascher, 11, a camper). Wild Earth encompasses four plots of private land (generously donated for campers’ use), all situated near the Shawangunk Mountains.  The landscape varies from challenging to tame, and younger participants spend their days exploring the quieter landscapes while those who are older and experienced enough for more rugged adventure head for the hills.
WildEarth_Swinging Monkeying around in the Shawangunks. | Photo: Wild Earth's website.
While Wild Earth very easily could become a bastion of elitism, it is studiously committed to providing opportunities for every child that wants to participate. “A child has never been turned down due to lack of funds,” Mr. Brownstein said.  “We work financial aid on an honor system. If someone says they need a certain amount of funding, we get it to them and people who pay the full amount know that they are helping those with fewer available funds. We all trust in the process and somehow, it works.” The program aims to be even more inclusive in coming years. Wild Earth recently received a grant from Dyson allowing 15 children from Kingston to participate in the camp this summer. About 1,000 children and adults participated in Wild Earth programs last year. This summer, approximately 60 local people will be hired to help out at the summer programs. “The kids in our after-school programs and our camps become extremely tight-knit,” Mr. Brownstein said. “We try to form little groups of 10-11 kids with a range of backgrounds. They learn to truly work together, cooperate and see the world through each other’s eyes, which is as important a part of our vision as the learning and experiences that happen in the outdoors.” The emotional and intellectual growth that happens amid the rugged beauty of the ‘Gunks weaves a mosaic as beautiful, surprising and untamed as the wild earth itself. Happy campers, happy parents.