How A Retail Shop in Wyoming Is Lowering D.C.’s High School Dropout Rate

For Jackson-based Skinny Skis, “community engagement” means supporting City Kids who live 2,000 miles away.

By Kristen Pope March 23, 2016

Shouldering full packs as they hiked along in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, a group of high school students caught a glimpse of something moving in the distance. Taking a minute to look, they realized the commotion was a black bear chasing cows in a nearby field.

Most Wyoming residents have never seen such a spectacle, so this was an exciting and rare—if somewhat frightening—opportunity for the students, indeed. For many, it was their first wildlife encounter of any kind. Residents of inner-city Washington, D.C., the students were part of the City Kids Wilderness Project, which brings young urban students to Jackson, Wyoming, each summer for a real wilderness adventure.

Many students come from neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment and violence, and over 90 percent of participants qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many have lost loved ones to violence or have family members who are incarcerated.

“We recruit from all across the city,” says Eloise Russo, executive director for City Kids. “Our target population is low-income D.C. youth. It’s a diverse cohort of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have known each other.”

Students join CKWP in sixth grade and stay with it through the end of high school. They attend after-school programs during the school year, local excursions on the weekends (to climbing gyms or area parks), longer trips over spring break (such as kayaking and spending the night on a barrier island in South Carolina), and then a more extensive experience in Wyoming over the summer.

“Year after year, they’re asked to come back to the camp if they’ve shown enough leadership and put enough effort into the program, so the vast majority of the kids come back for five or six years, so they’re grooming themselves to become junior staff and they’re becoming mentors for the younger kids at that point,” says Randy Luskey, president of City Kids.

The program doesn’t just teach them to fall in love with the outdoors—though that is a huge benefit. Students focus on building core skills such as resilience, perseverance and leadership. According to Russo, students learn how to apply those skills to their lives, with a particular emphasis on graduating high school or earning a GED, pursuing post-secondary education or a job and being involved and connected with their community.

“Here in D.C., and in a lot of places across the country, the goal is to provide positive opportunities for our kids and help them grow up in an environment where they feel cared for and supported and have ways to test their limits and interests among a really positive peer group,” says Russo. “Kids go to different schools across the city. Some are in a positive environment, and some are in schools that are struggling. They know that through the City Kids program, they are members of positive peer and mentor communities long term, so that when things aren’t going well, they know people who care and are going to be supportive.”

When the students head from D.C. to Jackson for a few weeks each the summer, they experience a traditional summer camp environment at Broken Arrow Ranch, where they enjoy classic camp activities like sleeping in cabins, horseback riding, arts and crafts, swimming lessons, sharing stories, and journaling.

Then, they really head outside. First-year students typically spend time car camping, while second-year students head out backpacking and on an overnight canoe trip. Students further along in the program go on longer adventures such as hiking to Yellowstone Lake, backpacking the Sawtooths, rock climbing, and whitewater kayaking in the Snake River Canyon.

A group of City Kids participants canoeing in Jackson, Wyoming.

A group of City Kids participants canoeing in Jackson, Wyoming.

Phil Leeds, co-owner of Jackson-based outdoor specialty retailer Skinny Skis, nominated the City Kids program to receive a portion of the funds raised during Outdoor Foundation’s annual Outsiders Ball. “Two years ago, I listened to the mother of one of these kids speak about what it’s meant to her son—a young teenager whose experience in the outdoors was limited to small, fendced-in backyard that was [his only] ‘safe zone.’ For him to have the opportunity to come to Jackson Hole and hike, backpack, climb and work with other kids and some of the guide services here was just amazing.”

Skinny Skis makes it a priority to engage with programs like CKWP, especially those that help young people. “Community engagement is kind of the cornerstone of our business,” says Leeds. “It’s something my partners and I have taken to heart ever since we opened the doors 41 years ago.”

And that type of community engagement has made all the difference for City Kids—the program and its participants. In CKWP’s nearly two decades of operation, many of its participants have gone on to accomplish huge goals. One former participant was invited to join Expedition Denali, the first African-American climb of the tallest peak in North America. Another works in Homeland Security, and one couple who met through the program are now married with two kids of their own. The impact of the program on its individual participants is undeniable.

But the impact of a program like City Kids on a community is exponential and even deeper. A full 96 percent of City Kids participants go on to graduate high school, compared to less than 65 percent of students in D.C. as a whole. After the program, 82 percent go on to college or other formal training, such as vocational programs or the military.

With numbers like that, it’s easy to see how continued programming, even—and especially—at a local, grassroots level can affect measurable change in underserved populations and their communities.