Learning, Naturally

By on Jul 10, 2014 in Giving, People

1-1EMI6229Yardi’s former Vice President of Client Services, Michelle Howard, now serves as Development Director at Wilderness Youth Project (WYP). Her passion for the environment prompted the career change. Yet after nine years of service, she has realized that the nonprofit’s scope extends beyond Mother Nature: WYP prepares children for a future in environmental stewardship while simultaneously closing the achievement gap. “Our nature programs are a tool to accomplish so much more,” says Howard.

The Wilderness Youth Project uses educational outdoor excursions to improve children’s chances for academic and social success. Programs enrich the lives of students in three areas.

Reversing Nature-Deficit Disorder

Children spend 90 percent of their time indoors. This disconnect with nature, or nature-deficit disorder as many now call it, can result in higher stress levels, hyperactivity, depression, anxiety, mental and physical fatigue.

Research demonstrates that children’s propensity for stress and symptoms of ADD/ADHD decreases when they spend time in nature. A study by the University of Illinois suggests that exposure to nature improves mood, cognitive functioning, and self-discipline.

WYP offers programs throughout the year to help families reconnect with the natural environment, paving the way for improved mental and physical health. Activities range from calming hikes and wildlife studies to more rigorous lessons in survival skills and team sports.

1-IMGP2502Fighting the Summer Slide

Once the school year ends, children are faced with a gap in their education. Howard explains, “If you take kids from middle income families that have access to resources and compare them to similar kids living in poverty—both can have the same education at the end of the semester with the same grades—but when they come back together in the fall the kids who have access to summer enrichment resources are significantly ahead of the kids who don’t.” The difference is called the summer slide. A lack of intellectual stimulation during the summer can prove to be detrimental during the next school year, causing cumulative setbacks in education.

Children living at poverty level often lack the resources needed to participate in summer enrichment activities. Of the 600 youth that participate in the WYP each year, 60 percent receive scholarship assistance. Students of all socio-economic statuses are given the opportunity to fight the summer slide by continuing their education year round.


Mentors are WYP’s secret weapons. At first glance, they seem like harmless, tree hugging idealists. The reality is that they’re equipped with the tools needed to encourage confidence, self-discipline, and balance in youth. WYP’s mentors are their greatest assets.

“The Developmental Assets study is so interesting,” says Howard. “Some of the assets fall under education but a lot have to do with what’s happening after school and who it happens with.  One strong conclusion is that kids who have access to adult mentors who aren’t family members have a better chance of succeeding in life.” Children with non-familial mentors develop skill sets that ultimately lead to better decision making in social, academic, and professional settings.1-SammyMoonSunset

The duration of WYP programs enables camp leaders to become mentors, rather than adults passing through. WYP courses last  three to nine months. There are many kids who return year after year. During this time, kids find adults that they can relate to, form friendships with, and learn from in a nonthreatening environment. Several program participants have grown up to become WYP volunteer counselors and staff members. “When that happens, that’s a really beautiful measurement of success and a marker for our development,” says Howard.

WYP’s trilateral approach reaches youth across the demographic spectrum, promoting achievement amongst all participants. “Some may think we’re just playing in the dirt,” laughs Howard, “but that’s just the beginning.”

To empower tomorrow’s leaders, join Yardi in supporting the Wilderness Youth Project.