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Surfing a Thin Line: How Nature Changes Kids' Lives

An interview with Chris Rutgers, founder of Outdoor Outreach about how surfing, mentoring and the outdoors can change kid's lives. Participants in the program are more likely to graduate high school or go to college than their peers, Rutgers said.

Chris Rutgers is a surfer quietly changing the lives of kids from the most underserved and low-income neighborhoods in San Diego County. Through the amazing work of the nonprofit Outdoor Outreach he founded more than a decade ago, he is getting thousands of kids outdoors and into the ocean.

Serge Dedina: When and where did you start surfing?

Chris Rutgers: I grew up in Newport Beach, and as a teenager I was at the Wedge bodysurfing every south swell. When I was 18 I moved to the mountains of Utah to ski full-time. When the snow melted I bought a board and started surfing for the first time. For the next eight years I would ski 150 days from November to May, then spend the rest of the year surfing and rock climbing all over the world.

Dedina: What made you decide to start Outdoor Outreach? Was there a particular experience in your own life that made you realize the value of outdoor education?

Rutgers: I had a violently abusive childhood I barely survived. When I moved to Utah I was despondent and suicidal… a total mess. My time in the outdoors was healing and transformative on so many levels. There is a quote from Joseph Campbell that sums up my experience: “Find a place inside where there is joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” Skiing, climbing and surfing is where I found my joy and it saved my life.

Dedina: Why is it important to make sure that kids, especially teenagers, spend time outdoors?

Rutgers: I think anyone who has had the opportunity to spend time connected to nature intuitively knows about the positive impact it has on us. The average American 11- to 14-years-old has nine hours of screen time each day. We are raising an entire generation of kids with no connection to the natural world. It’s shameful.

Dedina: What is it about surfing especially that gives at-risk kids a boost?

Rutgers: Any surfer can tell you about their first wave. There may not be a purer expression of joy in the human experience than feeling yourself glide on a wave, the only thing separating you from the energy in that wave is an inch thick piece of foam. Giving that feeling to inner city kids, many of whom have never seen the ocean or left a five-block radius in their entire lives is transformative.

Dedina: You started Outdoor Outreach more than a decade ago. What has been its impact?

Rutgers: Since our founding we’ve served over 7,000 at-risk and underserved youth. Over the last four years serving youth in schools with graduation rates between 45 to 60 percent, 100 percent of Outdoor Outreach participants have graduated with 95 percent moving on to college or technical school.

Dedina: What kinds of activities are students carrying out at Outdoor Outreach?

Rutgers: Outdoor activities are the key component to all of our program models. Each year we run between 250-300 trips including surfing, snowboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking and backpacking

Dedina: You started outdoor adventure clubs at local high schools and other schools nationally have started them. How does that work and what do the clubs do?

Rutgers: The Adventure Club has become our core program. Each club typically has 20 youth members who are referred by school administrators and counselors. Students meet weekly after school and participate in monthly outdoor trips. Through their membership, the students develop strong bonds with their peers that encourage commitment to the club and dedication to creating a positive group environment. 

Dedina: You've worked closely with Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, who is President Obama's nominee for Secretary of the Interior. Do you think she's a good choice?

Rutgers: Yes, I’ve known Sally for close to ten years.  She’s been hugely supportive of Outdoor Outreach, both personally and through REI. I think she’ll be a phenomenal Secretary of the Interior. She’s personally passionate about the resources she will be in charge of managing. She is uniquely suited for the position with her experience running a billion dollar enterprise at REI preceded by engineering work for the oil industry. I believe she’ll be effective at managing the diverse interests of many different competing interests and perspectives.

Dedina: You've now begun to expand the impact that Outdoor Outreach has on a national level. What are you doing to reach a larger audience so that more kids have a chance to get into the outdoors?

Rutgers:  Each year, we get 20-30 people that reach out to us wanting help replicating the Outdoor Outreach model in their community. We’ve just started working on a platform that will give others interested in doing similar work the tools and resources they need to create impactful outdoor youth development programs in their own community.

Dedina: What drives you to continue to push yourself and others to make Outdoor Outreach a game-changer for so many at-risk kids.

Rutgers: It works. Connecting kids to the outdoors is this amazing tool for healing, transformation and well being. There are so many kids out there that need help and support, by sharing our love and passion for the outdoors with these kids we can have such a huge impact. Not only here in San Diego, but throughout the world.

Serge Dedina is executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale.

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