It’s your first time in Jackson. You step off the plane, gawking at your surroundings. Then what?
“I looked up at the sky, I looked up at all the stars,” Martinae Irving said. “In D.C. what you think is a star is really just a plane.”
Irving is just one of many children who are gob struck by Wyoming’s natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes when they first come to Jackson with the City Kids Wilderness Project.
“I was amazed because of all the beauty,” Irving said. “There was still snow on the mountains, and there was so much land. You don’t see stuff like this in D.C.”
City Kids Wilderness Project is a nonprofit youth development organization. Founded in 1996, it provides transformative experiences for 130 young people from Washington, D.C., who wouldn’t be able to come otherwise. It offers a variety of programs that aim to build resiliency, broaden horizons and ensure skills for success.
“The inspiration for City Kids really came from my own personal experiences on outdoor trips,” founder Randy Luskey said. “I gained a lot of self-confidence and gained strength in a different environment. After going through some difficult times as a student, they turned my attitude around.”
City Kids has flourished. Around 19 campers came to Wyoming during the first summer. Now 90 or so kids make it out every summer.
When they arrive in Jackson, Luskey said, they’re greeted by a human tunnel of welcoming staff and friendly faces.
Seeing the Tetons for the first time isn’t something most students will forget.
“You see a light go on,” Luskey said. “It’s that sense of wonder that you had as a child that you wish you still had — it’s magic. It’s a brain-expanding, life-expanding experience.”
The program is based on three core principles: long-term engagement, outdoor adventure and experiential education programming, and goal setting with a focus on the future.
City Kids starts its programming young to encourage continuity. Each year the program recruits 20 sixth-grade students to enter the six-year program. There’s no financial ask from the students’ families.
“We’re interested in kids with a longer commitment in mind,” said Eloise Russo, executive director.
Russo told the News&Guide that the application process is a year long and that City Kids works closely with families to make sure everyone’s needs and interests are met.
City Kids includes after-school programs and weekend outdoor adventures in D.C., as well as spring break trips and summer camp at the Broken Arrow Ranch.
The Broken Arrow Ranch is south of Jackson, near Hoback Junction. The Hoback River meanders through the backyard of rustic cabins, fields for horseback riding and a garden of fresh produce. Bo and Bella, a few of the camp dogs, happily lie panting in the shade near a campfire ring.
It’s a great escape from the hustle and bustle of our nation’s capital. Kids learn to ride and care for horses, and at the end of their session they put on a camp rodeo.
“Most of our students have never seen anything other than a squirrel, or maybe a raccoon,” Luskey said. “There aren’t a lot of places you can go that not only have mountains and rivers but almost guaranteed exposure to large wildlife.”
Luskey knew right away that Jackson was the place he wanted to locate City Kids.
“There’s something special in Jackson,” he said. “It didn’t take us long to be struck by that feeling. If you live there, if you’ve been there, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Traditional trips include activities like paddleboarding on Jackson Lake and yes, even climbing the Grand Teton. During the last session, earlier in July, four high school boys made the ascent with Exum guides.
During their first summer, campers go on a guided Snake River rafting expedition. And by their fourth year they’re navigating the river in their own kayak, showing just how far they’ve come.
Next year City Kids will partner with the National Outdoor Leadership School to bring in additional climbing components.
“We take them on some intense and challenging adventures,” said Matt Boyer, City Kids’ director of development. “We would never use substandard gear or put them in harm’s way, so it’s a real priority of ours to have them outfitted in the highest quality possible.”
The camp isn’t all fun and games: Interpersonal skills and building relationships are high on the agenda.
“We discourage models of violent behavior, and we teach skills to resolve problems peacefully,” Boyer said.
She pointed to a conflict resolution corner of the main lodge. It’s outside, cozy under a wood roof and the ultimate place to talk it out. Signs are draped around the area reminding campers of the steps toward productive discussions.
“Agreeing to disagree is sometimes the hardest part,” Boyer said. “But as they get older we see them getting better.”
In Jackson, City Kids also pairs students with local businesses for internships. In the past they’ve worked at places like Mad River Boat Trips, Teton Gravity Research, Persephone Bakery and Cafe Genevieve.
Once kids successfully complete four years of summer and school-year programming they’re eligible for additional leadership and career development opportunities, called Job Experience Training, or JET.
JET gives young people the chance to serve as mentors and counselors-in-training in D.C. and at the Broken Arrow Ranch. High-school-age youth also receive support for postsecondary education and career opportunities through workshops, college tours, job search coaching and interview preparation.
“Younger students see that those kids are going to college or have jobs — the older campers are living the promise that you’re making to the new students,” Luskey said. “It’s not just a potential. It’s reality.”
Portia Chambers started as a City Kids camper when she was just 11 years old. She’s been with the program for seven years.
“When I first came out I was homesick,” Chambers said. “The wilderness was very different from home, and I missed my mom.”
Boyer said that response is to be expected.
“When kids first come out, sometimes they’re nervous,” he said. “We’ll take them on a trip to Yellowstone, and everything is brand new. But they come back confident. In not too long they’re walking around like they own the place.
“We hope that eventually, coming to the ranch feels like coming home.”
Chambers, now a JET, said City Kids keeps her busy every summer. She loves kayaking and is learning to enjoy backpacking — uphills and all.
“JETs are great role models to help the younger kids,” Russo said. “That’s the impact. They’ve been in their shoes.
“We picked Portia out as a leader like that from the very beginning.”
This summer Chambers interned for a week at the Spence Law Firm and at Snake River Photo. She was firming up a graphic design internship when she talked to the News&Guide.
“Opportunities like those really help you get to know what you want to be when you grow up,” Chambers said.
Luskey said members of the Jackson community are supportive and welcome the diversity in their offices:“It’s a breath of fresh air to have someone from a different background.”
As another current JET and former camper, Irving said she loves telling friends and family back home about her adventures out West.
“They would never think to kayak, for example,” she said. “But when I explain my experiences they can learn new things, too. It’s good to learn what you can’t back home.”
“The Anacostia River is just a different experience.”