Our most recent interview is with Eric Aaholm, executive director of YES, Nature to Neighborhoods. For the past 16 years YES has created bridges and pathways for youth, families, and the community to bring transformative experiences in nature back to homes and neighborhoods in Richmond.
Q. Let’s begin by talking about your path as a leader and where it began.
Eric: I had the luxury of growing up just north of Boulder, Colorado in the foothills. I was surrounded by nature from a young age. The outdoors was a place to explore, to discover, to get lost, to get into trouble. It was a safe environment and an inspiring one that instilled my love for the outdoors. I was also exposed to what it meant to create a vibrant and supportive community. My parents were both public employees. I grew up with a very civic-minded approach in terms of doing volunteer work and working with others.
When I graduated from college I packed my bags and put two phone numbers in my back pocket. I set off for Chile on the recommendation of a friend of the family who had lived in La Serena, a town north of Santiago at the edge of the Atacama Desert, hugging the Andes. The nature in Chile was really the thing that inspired me most. It seemed like a very wild and undiscovered part of the world — it was like walking through a painting.
When I came back from Chile after a year of teaching and traveling, I wanted to use my language skills and continue to work with a Spanish speaking population. My parents moved to Summit County, an area west of Denver. As it turned out, the area was a magnet for a lot of immigrant families who were moving from Mexico and Central America.
I started working as a coordinator with a mentoring agency that was part of the county government. I went into people’s homes whose children had been referred to the mentoring program and talked to them for hours. I knew that getting kids involved in the program began with gaining the trust of the parents.
Q. Was there a personal experience from this time that’s connected to your passion for this work today?
Eric: During that time in Colorado, I started mentoring a 10-year-old boy in our program named Homero. He, his two sisters and mom struggled under the weight of an abusive father whose alcohol induced rages put him in jail, but always brought him back to his family demanding forgiveness. Homero was torn. He loved his father and victimized his mother and sisters out of defensiveness and love. His life was in turmoil.
For three and half years I mentored Homero and his family. I celebrated holidays with them, wrote scholarships, attended graduations, went on adventures down the Colorado River and ascended peaks in the Rockies while watching Homero grow and transform into a young man.
I also saw his family shed tears and suffer more anguish than anyone deserves to endure in their lifetime. People told me to only focus on Homero, and not try to work with the whole family. I knew Homero’s well-being and chances for success were inextricably tied to the actions of his estranged parents. And I also saw how he could flourish in the company of positive peers and role models.
My choice to leave Colorado’s high country and come to California was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. However, none of this was as difficult as saying goodbye to Homero and his family. They, and other families like them, were my reason for pouring my passion into my everyday existence.
I owe a great deal of the trajectory of my work to the choice of living in the same community where I worked with Homero’s family and other families in the program. This experience provided a foundation that emboldens my social work values and my strengths as a leader. It fuels my passion, not only in my work with youth, but with their families as well.
For a young child, to experience going down a zip-line for the first time was a wonderful thing to see. But to watch the child look with a new set of eyes at their parents go down the zip-line — having fun, forgetting their worries, being together as a family — was something far more powerful and magical.
Q. What happened when you moved to California?
Eric: A serendipitous thing happened after I moved to Berkeley for graduate school. My wife Caroline was invited to photograph a weekend camp excursion with local families. Upon returning, she told me how much I would love the experience and she encouraged me to get involved. I quickly learned about the fledging organization, YES (Youth Enrichment Strategies), the Family Camps and the organization’s founder, Diane Mintz.
Diane was a Berkeley realtor who began taking local Richmond kids on weekend outings around the Bay Area. Before we met, she did an overnight trip to Lake Chabot and the kids camped out under the pine trees under the stars — by far the most scary thing the kids had done, and the most exhilarating. This experience launched the idea of weeklong residential camps. YES began in 1999, when Diane sent 81 kids to a residential summer camp at YMCA Camp Loma Mar.
From my first YES camp experience in 2004, what resonated with me the most was the involvement with the family. The energy was about creating community – more so than giving the kids an unforgettable experience. For a young child, to experience going down a zip-line for the first time was a wonderful thing to see. But to watch the child look with a new set of eyes at their parents go down the zip-line — having fun, forgetting their worries, being together as a family — was something far more powerful and magical.
Q. After finishing graduate school in 2007, you became the executive director of YES and opened the first office in the heart of Richmond. How has YES developed since the founding years?
Eric: The Family Camp program for YES has become more than a way to recruit children to summer camp — it has become a community-building model. We currently focus on two elementary schools: Peres Elementary in the Iron Triangle and Verde Elementary in North Richmond. Each school has two camps, spring and fall, emphasizing the values of nature, community, discovery, respect and safety. The waiting list gets longer and longer with each season that we offer a new Family Camp. There’s a big need and word travels fast among families.
The relationships we build with youth and families are long-lasting. One of the things we do at Family Camp is a 3-hour adult workshop. We talk about issues that are relevant and important to adults as caregivers and residents. People come to it with hesitancy —but by the end, people are opening up to one another and expressing that they feel much more a shared sense of community.
The core of what we do is building trusting relationships. This is absolutely the foundation for whatever the work is — to help people have healthier lives, to help students reach their potential, to help communities organize for a better built environment.
Q. YES’s theory of change has three leadership pathways based on your camp and community programming. Let’s first talk about the Youth Leadership Pathway that has now grown into a 10-year program.
Eric: In 2010, with a grant from the Foundation for Youth Investment (now Youth Outside), we were able to launch our Camp-to-Community program (C2C), our year-round youth leadership program for 14-18 year olds. This pathway, based on a youth development model, prepares young campers to become camp counselors. When kids turn 14 or 15 (and have been attending summer camps with YES from an early age), they have the opportunity to become leaders-in-training or counselors-in-training at their camp.
We also talk to the youth about their desire or dream to go to college or reach other goals. We ask, “What will the pathway to reach your goals look like?” And we ask how YES can help. Related to this, we leverage strong partnerships with East Bay Regional Park District and Outward Bound to provide year-round access to the outdoors for our older youth. This exposure, coupled with participatory action research projects (focused on pressing health and wellness issues in their community) and academic support, sets the stage for youth to take the necessary steps to reach their goal after high school. Since 2010, 18 youth have become full-time camp counselors — this past year we proudly witnessed all five of our Camp-to-Community seniors graduate from the program and enroll in college.
We work with the family, community, and neighborhood to make sure young people are getting the support they deserve in school (and in other programs they are involved) and see that support reflected throughout their day.
With children and adults in the community, we see nature as a platform and as a metaphor. At camp, being outdoors and in nature, children and adults let down their guard and see the beauty around them. They discover, climb trees and experience their boundaries.
Q. How does your work with parents at Family Camp continue with parent involvement and leadership at Peres and Verde Elementary School?
Eric: In the Richmond neighborhoods that we work in, the high rates of asthma, obesity and other chronic diseases, and the poverty rates, are 400 times higher than the rest of Contra Costa County. Families don’t feel a huge sense of pride in their neighborhoods or a great sense of hope that their community can become a safe place for themselves and their kids. There’s a lot of fear around leaving kids out and what might happen, including fear about dogs — there’s always a lot of conversation about safety around animals, because people leave pit bulls out in the fences, and the pit bulls can get out and attack. And there’s always a concern around gun safety and bullying.
Parents don’t always feel comfortable sending their kids to local schools. Over the years, YES has been very involved with the schools and with helping parents organize. By creating a safe environment, YES supports parents in coming together and having conversations about their school, their kids and what they can do to encourage them to get outdoors and involved in extracurricular activities. Parents build trust with one another, learn skills and get motivated to become change makers.
YES has a very open and receptive community building approach. We tell parents they have ownership in their neighborhoods and shouldn’t have to live in fear. After we set that stage, parents become a little more forthcoming about what they can do as individuals and as families to make positive changes in their neighborhood and their school.
Q. Let’s take a look now at the expanded picture – the Community Leadership Pathway.
Eric: At YES we have a group of truly dedicated staff who are passionate about seeing changes to their community and making YES participants a part of it. And we have a lot of close relationships with other community partners and do a tremendous amount of collaboration to be able to have a larger impact in the community.
The core of what we do is building trusting relationships. This is absolutely the foundation for whatever the work is — to help people have healthier lives, to help students reach their potential, to help communities organize for a better built environment. All of those things start with trust.
In January 2013, a group of community partners providing services in North Richmond came together as the North Richmond Network to discuss how the coordination of their services could create improved outcomes for children, youth, and families living in North Richmond. Faced with the challenges of high poverty rates, frequent episodes of violence, lack of safe spaces, and poor academic outcomes for students, partners began convening regular monthly meetings to identify goals and a coordinated response to some of these larger issues. The members of the network collectively identified four core priorities around school climate, literacy, parent engagement, and mental health. YES serves as the backbone organization for the North Richmond Network.
For me, Jorge has been that constant all these years at YES. Whenever I see him, all of the things we’ve done over the years come to a crescendo and I realize it has all been a very worthwhile and extraordinary journey.
Q. We started our conversation with the story of Homero – how that experience influences your work today. You have now been part of YES for eleven years — is there someone you watched grow with the program over these years?
Eric: Jorge is 20 now, but when I first met him, he was a nine-year old and his family was the one assigned to me the first time I went to Family Camp in 2004. The previous year had been Jorge’s first experience at summer camp. He was shy and one of the camp counselors helped ensure Jorge had the best week of his life. He later made a promise to himself, to be that counselor some day, and make a change in someone else’s life.
I watched Jorge’s family grow and thrive and also face challenges that would feel so insurmountable to many of us. There were four or five years of continuous health scares for the family. All along those challenging years, camp and YES was a constant for Jorge, the youngest of the three siblings — camp was always that place where he could go and always be himself.
Jorge is now a full time camp counselor during the summer at YMCA Camp Loma Mar. At the end of a camp session, a camper pulled Jorge aside and told him he had changed his life. Jorge also told us a story about a little boy at camp who was struggling to fit in. Jorge asked him where he was from. When the boy told him he was from Richmond, Jorge responded by saying, “I’m from Richmond too and I was a YES kid, just like you!” As he said that, the little boy’s eyes grew very large — it seemed, in that moment, that he was seeing himself in Jorge.
Jorge is a very loving person and takes on a huge amount of responsibility —he’s an extraordinary individual. I get together with him from time to time just to talk about how things are going and to talk about life. For me, Jorge has been that constant all these years at YES. Whenever I see him, all of the things we’ve done over the years come to a crescendo and I realize it has all been a very worthwhile and extraordinary journey.
For more information about YES, see their Yes Families and strategic vision.