Fourteen years ago, a woman named Aimee Frazier and her daughter spent their time exploring the forest around Chuckanut near their home. After hearing of their adventures, many of Aimee’s friends’ kids wanted to join in on the fun. This soon turned into more kids, followed by younger siblings and soon Aimee and her daughter had a full-fledged club, which they accordingly named Explorers Club. About five years later, Explorers Club melded with an organization called Wild Whatcom Walks and the nonprofit Wild Whatcom was born.
Wild Whatcom is, at its very core, an organization dedicated to the environmental education of children. They have various programs from the continued Explorers Club to SEED, a program for kids with developmental disabilities. They even host backpacking trips. “Our main mission is to connect people to the outdoors in whatever format is most comfortable for them, in whatever way that makes them most happy,” says Hannah Thomas, the field program manager and mentor at Wild Whatcom. “We really care about connecting people to the outdoors and, hopefully with that connection, creating a sense of love and essence of home in the environment and wanting to be a steward for our community. We really care about community engagement and we really care about just exploring, getting wet and having fun.”
Wild Whatcom does their best to make this idea of connection accessible for all children, no matter what their socioeconomic status is or any disabilities that they may have. They have many programs that were created in conjunction with elementary schools in the Bellingham School District. For example, Edventures is a program where staff at Wild Whatcom work with second and third grade classroom in Title I schools. Mentors take students on explorations and field trips based on collaborations with teachers, so outings are consistent with principles echoed in the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the Common Core standards.
SEED, the program for kids with developmental disabilities, is also a school based program. Wild Whatcom works with teachers in Life Skills programs throughout the district to develop students comfort in new environments so they can build physical growth, sensory-motor integration and socio-emotional growth. “I really love SEED,” says Hannah. “There’s just something so special about working with that population in the outdoors. So much of it is based on just understanding how to be comfortable outside, right? And giving a chance to people who so often are told that they can’t do something because of their perceived limitations; I love just watching them constantly prove people wrong, you know? I just think it’s magical. I love it.”
Wild Whatcom program stem from their focus of equity. “We just did a whole organizational retreat where we talked about our mission for the next few years,” Hannah says. “It’s based in equity and trying to provide equitable opportunities for lots of populations who might not otherwise have access.”
This idea is central to the Wild Whatcom mission. “I wouldn’t say that we have a social justice curriculum explicitly,” she says, “but we don’t shy away from social justice issues that we feel come up innately.”
They like to tackle social issues head on when it comes up during their explorations so that children can work on developing their own thoughts and opinions and grow along with the experiences. “We try to teach a very real world experience for children but, of course, ones that feel age appropriate.” Hannah explains. “We’re not going to talk about things like systemic racism with seven-year-olds but, if it comes up, we pretty much like to acknowledge it. If we experience someone who’s experiencing homelessness on the trail, we’re going to talk about it because that’s a really challenging issue that comes up with a lot of different feelings and a lot of biases and a lot of judgment. We feel like working through those problems helps children to have a better sense of advocacy and sense of self.”
Hannah herself was drawn to Wild Whatcom because of their take on environmental education and equity. She has been working with them since she graduated college. “When I was studying at Western, I studied Environmental Education,” she says. “I actually did a project about Wild Whatcom in my undergrad and really liked it … We really try to build relationships with people for as long as we can and I think that that’s so cool. I just loved that.”
Wild Whatcom programs have a huge impact on kids. “The children will come home [from backpacking trips], and they just feel like they had this otherworldly experience where they got to live in a different way, they got to try things that were challenging, they got to laugh and do skits, and be silly, and cry because they were thinking about challenging stuff,” Hannah says. She adds that parents will reach out and thank her for helping their child realize their potential.
“I think Wild Whatcom represents a space for people to be able to be themselves in a really true way and access the depth of themselves within what I think is one of the best teachers, which is nature,” Hannah says. “That combination is so special. We give little people and big people and everybody a chance to get to know themselves and get to know nature and figure out how the two mix. I just feel like that’s something everybody should get the chance to do.”