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How Outdoor Lab Inspired Me

Written by Rebecca Gillis, State and Local Government Affairs Manager at the Outdoor Industry Association.

Recently, I have been thinking about my origin story as it relates to my great love for nature and time spent outside. Outdoor education is a topic near and dear to my heart, and perhaps it is because I am an immediate beneficiary of an innovative outdoor learning program that provided me the opportunity to explore my relationship to nature very early on.

I grew up in Jefferson County, Colorado, and had the opportunity – like the rest of my classmates, and those sixth graders who came before and after me – to pack up and leave home for a whole week spent at Windy Peak Outdoor Laboratory. Although I had grown up staring at the beautiful Rocky Mountains, I seldom got the opportunity to experience nature in a sustained manner. The week at Outdoor Lab was the first time I got to spend a prolonged amount of time away from my parents and television, with my friends, and in the woods. It was my first great outdoor adventure.

The experience was wonderful. Most specifically, I remember two courses that impacted me in a meaningful manner: a course on astronomy, and a course on nature photography. The curriculum for each class spoke to me in a way that nothing in school had before. To this day, I credit my love for landscape photography and dark sky communities to early exposure at Windy Peak.

In addition to the educational opportunities was the simple fact that I got to spend time with my best friends outside for several days in a row. After the week at Outdoor Lab, everyone in our sixth-grade class seemed to be more friendly and caring toward one another. We had rambled up to the mountains as several different classes and cliques, and we left Windy Peak as one big family. That feeling reverberated for me and my peers for years afterward.

I was also able to return to Windy Peak as a high school leader. As a leader, I watched as many of the sixth graders grow more adventurous, comfortable, curious, and connected to nature at Outdoor Lab. Major, positive change for some students occurred throughout the span of just a few days.

I now understand that I took my experience at Outdoor Lab both as a student and counselor for granted. As an adult, I see that time outside in a safe, welcoming, beautiful, and engaging environment is something that far too many children (and adults) lack in our nation. Outdoor Lab could be called a foundational experience for me, and one that has influenced my personal and professional life. Everyone should have exposure to nature as early on as possible, especially in a state blessed with some of the richest and most beautiful landscapes and wildlife. Outdoor Lab and programs like it across the nation are key in building an outdoors for all.

Rebecca Gillis enjoying the great Colorado outdoors.