Meet the Wilderness group turns 30 |

Meet the Wilderness group turns 30

Daniel Elton

EAGLE COUNTY ” Meet the Wilderness is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month with a big party at the Donovan Pavilion in Vail.

The nonprofit organization reaches out to underprivileged and at-risk young people by taking them in groups into the mountains. There they have to eat, sleep and overcome challenges together and learn to live as a community.

That way Meet the Wilderness aims to teach young people life-management skills, including trust, teamwork and responsibility. Nowadays they work with more than 2,500 young people a year from Eagle County, the Front Range and Chicago. But it wasn’t always so.

Thirty years ago, Meet the Wilderness was a seed of an idea, a topic of conversation at Jim Himmes’ Christmas table. Himmes had moved from Chicago to the county a few years earlier. He remembers thinking that it was a shame that so many youngsters from Chicago didn’t get the chance to come to Eagle County and “it would be nice to share experiences of the mountains with some kids from the inner city.”

That next summer of 1974, Himmes and friend Greg Earle took a church group of 20 youngsters across the Holy Cross Wilderness.

“We were basically trying to survive,” says Himmes, “trying to figure out what to do with 20 kids in the woods.” Working on a bargain budget, they had to “beg and borrow as much as we could.” Tents were “just black plastic sheets thrown over a string tied between two trees.”

Himmes says from that day on they knew they were onto something special.

“The bottom line is that the kids really enjoyed themselves,” says Himmes, “and we also realized that adventure was an incredible learning tool.”

One of the first young people to go on a Meet the Wilderness adventure was Robert Paredis. Now Paredis is an executive sales manager for Kimberley Clark Medical, a $16 billion business, with a wife and two sons. But at the time he was just a “kid from inner-city Chicago.”

This was “an incredible experience for a young child. I was thrown into a wilderness without cars or alarm clocks or people,” he says.

Paredis remembers his wilderness adventure as one of the key points in his adolescence.

“I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted to do with my life. I gained an awareness of myself and that I had a future to look forward to,” he says. Paredis hopes that someday he will take his own sons to Meet the Wilderness.

“I really want to make sure that my sons have a similar experience,” he says.

Meet the Wilderness still changes the lives of young people today, especially those in the Vail Valley.

Innes Isom, a guide and a teacher at Minturn Middle School, and sees the positive effect on young people today: “I see kids who went through the program four or five years ago still with strong memories.. They still remember the names of the guides.”

Their memories of their trips can help them at school, as well, he says. “They remember that when they were with Meet the Wilderness they tried something new and they succeeded. So when they come across something new again, they can succeed again,” Isom says.

The trips are special for the guides, as well, although as he explains, “Every day is unique. Every group is different. Every kid is different.”

Himmes now is mainly involved in fund-raising and insists that Joe Schmitt is the “real meat” of the organization. Schmitt is executive director of the organization, after working his way up from the bottom. Twenty-one years ago he joined as a guide. He went on to becoming program director, co-executive director and then his current post.

With his grand title, his average day can involve everything from “paying bills and meeting staff (to) cleaning out the toilets.” It is that sense of everybody pitching in to help each other that make Meeting The Wilderness such a special place to work for, he says. “We almost form a community ourselves.”

It is the wider Eagle County community, though, that Schmitt says is a big reason reasons for Meeting The Wilderness’ success. People like Jean Naumann, Mike King, Sharon Dale and Innes Isom have put decades into the organization as volunteers, Schmitt says. These “high quality people have a passion for what they do,” he says.

Throughout the county there are a lot of people who are “involved with their time, financially or are just being advocates,” he says.

Schmitt says that Meet the Wilderness has a special approach as an adventure organization working with young people because they work with kids not as individuals, but as part of a group. They approach schools, churches, probation programs and other sources for groups of young people who can learn team skills over the course of their adventure.

“When you live in a community with somebody for six days, or depend one someone’s belay when rock climbing or have to put up a tent together it creates trust and teamwork pretty quickly,” Schmitt says.

The hope is that when they return home their mountain experience will inform their everyday life, he says.

“The idea behind the group is that when they go back [to where they live] they when they go back they can look out for each other, and step in if they see each other in trouble or doing the wrong thing,” Schmitt says.

Although Meet the Wilderness continues to work mainly with small groups, over the next few weeks they will be working with hundreds of high school freshmen. On Friday, they plan the Bionic Bash for all 200 freshmen at Battle Mountain High School and on Aug. 26 a traveling team course for Minturn Middle School students.

But on Aug. 27 at the Donovan Pavilion, it will be time to reflect on three decades of serving young people from the county, the state and Chicago.

Daniel Elton is an intern working at the Vail Daily in Vail, Colorado.

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