From the backcountry to the classroom
EAGLE COUNTY – Joe Schmitt came to Eagle county for a two-month job. He’s turned that two-month stint into a career.At the end of March, Schmitt will leave Meet the Wilderness, a nonprofit “adventure education” group that works with local and inner city kids. Schmitt is only the group’s second director, and has worked there for the last 22 years.In that time, the group has gone from taking maybe 200 kids a summer into the wilderness into a year-round organization that holds programs for more than 2,000 annually.”We teach the kids don’t be afraid of change,” Schmitt said. “Well, it’s time for a change. Meet the Wilderness is doing well, and it’s better to leave when it’s doing well.”After March 31, Schmitt isn’t sure what he’ll do, but said a return to teaching might be fun. That, it seems, is where Schmitt’s heart is. It’s how he started with Meet the Wilderness.In 1983 or so, Schmitt met Jim Himmes, the group’s founder. Himmes asked Schmitt to call if he ever came to Colorado. Schmitt went to work for Meet the Wilderness in the summer of 1984.At the time, Meet the Wilderness was about 10 years old, and was focused on bringing a few troubled kids from the roughest parts of Chicago to Eagle County in the summer. At the time, the program was called “hoods in the woods” by some locals. Kids in the program were often sent by judges.Not long after arriving as a guide, Schmitt started seeing opportunities to make the program bigger. At first, that meant bringing in kids from Denver as well as Chicago.
Then the group built a “team course” – something like an obstacle course that encourages kids to work together to solve problems – at Maloit Park near Minturn. That meant Meet the Wilderness could provide one-day programs. And that opened the doors for local kids.Monumental fourth gradersBy the end of the 1980s, Meet the Wilderness was taking kids on wilderness trips, and providing one-day classes. But it still wasn’t that well known among locals.That’s when Cathy Hall, then a teacher at Meadow Mountain Elementary School, asked Meet the Wilderness to take a class of fourth graders on a one-day trip to the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction.”By working with fourth graders, that really solidified us with locals,” Schmitt said. Now, most of the kids who take Meet the Wilderness classes are locals.”What kids in Chicago need is the same as what kids in Denver need is the same as what kids here need,” Schmitt said. That “need” is the skills to solve problems, to work in groups, and to be comfortable in the woods. “Teachers get the payoff in the classroom,” he said.
While much of Meet the Wilderness’ work is now closer to the valley floor, it’s the backcountry experiences that stick in Schmitt’s mind. “It’s amazing to see kids that have never been in the wilderness, who think they’ll be eaten by a bear, to then say, ‘I wish I could stay out here forever,'” Schmitt said.”That doesn’t get old,” Meet the Wilderness founder Jim Himmes said. “We’ve all had amazing experiences with kids in the backcountry.”While the kids learned, so did Schmitt. “He really learned as he went, and he learned well,” Himmes said. “There’s a real sense of professionalism he brought to the program.”Doing more for kidsWhile Meet the Wilderness has grown into a year-round operation over the years, Schmitt has tried to help kids in other ways. He’s a founder of and board member with the Eagle River Youth Coalition, a group of nonprofit and government groups that help kids. “There are a lot of dedicated people involved in that,” Schmitt said. “It’s fun to see people with their passions for their work.”A local who’s worked with Schmitt feels the same way.
“Joe has been an inspiration to everyone who serves young people in this valley,” said Tom McCalden, who has been a grant writer for both Meet the Wilderness and the youth coalition. “I believe the county owes him a great debt of gratitude.”Schmitt has also been a teacher at Colorado Mountain College and a volunteer with Vail Mountain Rescue. It’s the college where he might return to teach, depending on how things break for him after the end of the month.Both Schmitt and Himmes said it’s going to be interesting to see how things break for Meet the Wilderness after March 31, too.”This is golden opportunity for Meet the Wilderness,” Himmes said. “This will be a test to see if it can stand on its own.”On the Web: http://www.meetthewilderness.orgStaff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14624, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado