A New Approach to After-School Programs Means Hope for Opelousas
Louisiana specialty retail shop Pack & Paddle is turning some of the state’s poorest kids into its outdoorsiest ones.
The forecast called for light rain, but when the Hope for Opelousas Adventure Crew began their five-day backpacking trip along North Carolina’s Appalachian Trail, the sun was shining, and it was a gorgeous day. Just 45 minutes into the trek, the sky opened up and Mother Nature unleashed her fury.
“It was really a vulnerable moment,” says Hope for Opelousas Executive Director Loren Carriere. He was one of the adult leaders guiding the group of high school students, most of whom had never been on a hiking trail in their life, let alone the most storied trail in North America. The group had traveled from Opelousas, Louisiana, an area entrenched with deeply-rooted poverty. Many of the students had never left their parish (the Louisiana equivalent of a county) before this trip.
“Do we stop or do we keep going? We decided we would continue to hike,” says Carriere. Over the next few hours, the group encountered some of the worst weather Carriere has ever seen. The trail became a river. The group had no coverage on the open balds of the mountains. The students sloshed through the rain and muck and marched right through lunch, snacking as they walked, in search of shelter. “It was excruciating and frustrating; the torment that only the trail could bring,” says Carriere. The group stuck together for safety as they pressed on to find shelter.
Finally, they came to a forested area where they could set up tarps to get out of the storm. “Slowly, everyone hunkered down, bomb-proofed our packs, got into the tents and began relaxing,” says Carriere. The sun eventually came out, but not before the whole group, including Carriere, was pushed to its limits. But the group was nothing if not resilient.
“Some of the challenges my community faces are really, really difficult,” says Carriere, who is also from Opelousas. “There are problems of poverty—not just the lack of money, but the lack of development. There are so many different ways to look at this problem and make a difference, but if you boil it down, any positive influence anyone’s had in their life [is] rooted in love. Love changes things, and love is what drew us to start our after-school programs.”
The Hope for Opelousas program involves after-school tutoring, mentoring and life and college preparation skills for students beginning in the fourth grade. High schoolers help tutor and mentor younger students. Participants also go on enrichment and Adventure Crew trips like this one, ranging from a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon to a canoe trip on the Boundary Waters.
John Williams is the co-owner of Lafayette, Louisiana’s, Pack & Paddle, and he nominated Hope for Opelousas for 2015 Outsiders Ball funds because he believes the program greatly benefits participants and his community.
The charitable arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, the Outdoor Foundation is dedicated to inspiring and empowering a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts. The Outdoor Foundation is the national non-profit supporting and investing in next-gen outdoor champions and best-in-class outdoor projects.
“For us as an outdoor shop, we think it’s important that their program has an outdoor component to it to get kids outside,” says Williams, adding that most of the kids wouldn’t have a chance like this without the program. “This nonprofit is located in the poorest parish in one of the poorest states in the country. All the kids in the program are at risk, and the backbone of the program is an afterschool tutoring program. They’re helping the kids on a lot of levels educationally, but they’re opening their eyes to what’s in the world outside their neighborhood through this outdoor program, and they’re helping to develop leadership through an outdoor program for kids who would not have that shot otherwise.”
The individual attention and opportunities for enrichment pay off. During the 2014–2015 school year, 94 percent of participants passed all their classes and, after summer help, all students entered the next grade.
Carriere puts it simply: “As our kids move along through elementary and junior high and into high school, what we try to do is utilize the outdoors to create opportunities for learning [and] leadership and paradigm-shattering life experiences.”