Nature is for everyone.
That is the motto of Team Wilderness — a Jersey City based organization that is encouraging urban teenagers to explore nature.
What started as a summer program to get students into nature has turned into a multi-program organization that serves kids all year round.
In New Jersey, youth of color and low-income communities are more likely to live in nature deprived areas. Team Wilderness is working to change that narrative by exposing Hudson County kids to wilderness excursions helping them expand teamwork, leadership and character skills.
“It’s no longer about just getting them outdoors and it never really was. It’s more about having them grow from these experiences, grow in confidence, grow in character and faith in themselves,” said Steve Cunningham, the Executive Director of Team Wilderness. “We really see youth as something that can accomplish great things.”
Cunningham, who taught at Snyder High School for 15 years, got the inspiration to start Team Wilderness after launching a hiking club at the school. He quickly began to notice the impact nature had on students, stating they began to perform better in school and had more energy after their excursions.
Many studies have shown that exposure to nature can help people be more attentive, confident and improve self-discipline and mental health. Wanting to have more kids benefit from nature, Cunningham started the nonprofit organization.
Since their launch in 2016, Team Wilderness has provided over 6,000 hours of outdoor time to over 1,000 Hudson County students. A majority of those students have expressed to the organization the ways the outdoor excursions helped them gain more confidence not only in their academics, but in their personal lives.
“We are hoping that when they get outside of their comfort zone and conquer new activities that it reminds them that they are amazing and they can do great things,” Cunningham told Slice of Culture.
The organization houses programs that offer wilderness therapy, nature photographic lessons, academic coaching and mentoring for middle schoolers.
In 2023, they implemented the Compass Project, which provides mentorship for students from their sophomore year in high school to their second year of college.
In the program, students gain assistance on their college application process and receive academic coaching every week. They also go once a month with their coach on an outdoor excursion like hiking or rock climbing to help distress, build stronger relationships and grow in confidence.
In the U.S. about 56% of undergraduates are first generation college students. About 33% of them drop out within three years.
With the program, the organization hopes to support students and enhance their chances of reaching academic success and beyond. That is part of the reason why they try to hire back into the organization.
“Our youths are amazing and they become amazing role models,” explained Cunningham. “For our field instructors, over one third of them are kids we used to serve that are now working for us. It gives them the opportunity to stay outdoors, and be a mentor to someone that other youths can look up to because frantically they should be led by people that come from their community, that look like them and that they can relate to.”
With their commitment to continue providing wilderness experiential education and supportive programs to Hudson County’s most underserved youth, the stated recently awarded Team Wilderness with the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award, which is awarded annually to “individuals and organizations that demonstrate commitment and leadership on a variety of environmental issues, including environmental justice, climate change, sustainability and education.”
“Our staff is mostly from Jersey City or Hudson County, most of them born and raised and work really hard on the services we provide to the youth, on inspiring youth,” said Cunningham. “It is nice to be recognized for trying to bridge that nature gap and build that community.”
Although the statewide recognition has been a huge accomplishment for the organization, Cunningham explains that the real reward comes from the feedback of the students, the parents and from the support of the community. To them, that is the ultimate recognition.