Into the Wild

A local nonprofit empowering youth through the great outdoors

Denver students ventured to Moab, Utah with cityWILD for spring break. Photography: cityWILD

Denver students ventured to Moab, Utah with cityWILD for spring break. Photography: cityWILD

A childhood without fun and exploration in the great outdoors is hard to fathom, especially in Colorado. However, for many children in low-income areas of Denver who face personal and socioeconomic challenges, recreational outdoor activities are limited if not completely out of reach. This is why one Colorado nonprofit has made it their goal to facilitate youth access to outdoor activities that foster leadership, personal empowerment and community participation.

CityWILD gives culturally diverse middle and high school children outdoor and environmental learning opportunities that motivate them to reach their full potential at school, home and in their communities. Since 1998, cityWILD has provided tuition-free, comprehensive experiential education programs to urban youth in northeast Denver, an area that, according to Executive Director, Jes Ward, has historically faced challenges related to institutionalized racism and socioeconomic disparity. “It is a community that faces tremendous challenges, but also has a tremendous spirit,” says Ward. “It is a wonderful community to be part of.”

Outdoor expeditions include weekend adventures, during which participants in the Afterschool Program (which provides a dedicated, safe place for students to do homework and participate in educational activities) are selected to participate in a one-to-three day excursion, which includes activities such as rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking and white water rafting on the South Platte or Arkansas River.

Needless to say, participants at cityWILD achieve far more than an adrenaline rush down the river. They are taught valuable lessons that last a lifetime. “Nature is an incredible teacher. It holds lessons, metaphors and challenges that can inspire greatness,” says Ward. “CityWILD’s outdoor programming is designed specifically to draw out those trials that help our participants grow,” says Ward.

In fact, at cityWILD every activity has a purpose. “Many students have difficulty setting and achieving concrete goals. Rock climbing provides a wonderful way to explore the concept of goal setting–the goal can be the top of the pitch, the middle, or even just 10 feet off the ground.”

Photography: cityWILD

Photography: cityWILD

During the spring and summer seasons, students have the chance to participate in more involved week long trips that really present students with the opportunity to practice their leadership skills. “Our spring break trip to Moab was called “Choose Your Own Adventure” and the lessons were all about individuality, identity, and making positive decisions. The possibilities are literally endless,” says Ward.

As part of cityWILD’s leadership program, students who demonstrate leadership potential can earn valuable positions as junior and crew leaders, working as part-time, paid staff and acting as role models to younger students. “This year the crew leaders have grown exponentially. They have gained the respect of their peers, achieved the difficult goal of balancing their school and work expectations, and have made their voices heard in their own, unique ways,” says Ward.

Funded through grants from many of the major Colorado and national funders, including the Community First Foundation, cityWILD also generates fee-for-service income through the operation of a Whitewater Rafting program that employs professional and youth guides. “All proceeds from the river rafting program support the organization’s year-round youth programming,” says Ward.

The enrollment process for cityWiLD could not be easier. All a child has to do is walk though the doors and sign up. There are no fees and no applications. All a prospective student needs to do is request a registration packet and have their parent or guardian sign it. “I started to come to cityWILD because my grades were down and my mom made me come, but then I liked it. It has helped me learn to love the outdoors. I like meeting new people,” explains Gerardo, a student at cityWILD.

According to Ward, students across the board show tremendous growth and typically stay involved in the program long term, “We have an incredibly high rate of retention and we are even working to develop a program to support our alumni who want to stay involved.”

In addition to meeting their goals and objectives in promoting environmental awareness, community ethic and developing leadership and social skills, a high percentage of cityWILD students also stay in school and improve their attitudes towards drugs, alcohol and tobacco use, an accomplishment the non-profit is very proud of, “We focus on a holistic approach to youth development and that seems to work well in serving the needs of the youth who choose to be part of our programs.”

How to Help
Thanks to the support of the Community First Foundation and Colorado Gives, 100 percent of all donations received through this service go directly to cityWILD. Donate today at

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