As OARS wraps up their 50th season on the water, they do so with a spirit and dedication to fostering the next generation of environmental stewards and active outdoor enthusiasts. In 2019, OARS surpassed their goal of getting more than 500 kids on rivers, donating fully-outfitted trips for more than 600 kids and young adults on rivers across the American West. On the heels of their success, the company has made a commitment to continue getting 500 under-resourced youth on rivers each year moving forward. The commitment is made possible with support from the Pam & George Wendt Foundation, named in honor of OARS’s founders with the vision to connect young people to one of the world’s greatest resources—our natural environment.
“George had the heart of a teacher, and his belief and investment in youth being the stewards and hope of the future was contagious,” said Ashley Sozzi, coordinator for the Pam & George Wendt Foundation. “We’ve built something sustainable and worthwhile here, and are standing on the infrastructure Pam and George built, still trying to steer the future of the Foundation through their visionary eyes.”
Since 2015 OARS has provided free or highly-subsidized 1- to 6-day outfitted rafting and kayaking experiences for more than 2,000 under-resourced youth for groups around the West composed of Latinx youth, refugees, Native American youth, rural and inner city kids, disabled youth, children of incarcerated adults, survivors of sex trafficking, and foster children, along with kids from mentoring groups, and leadership development programs.
“We're able to get kids and young adults on the river every year that otherwise probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to do so,” said Seth Davis, OARS regional manager in Moab, Utah. “I think all humans need to spend time in the outdoors, out of their comfort zone, and have the experience of being awed by nature. I think as river runners it's almost our duty to share these places and experiences with others, especially those folks who can't bypass the obstacles that are keeping them from the outdoors.”
From 1-day trips on the South Fork of the American River in California, to multi-day trips through the Grand Canyon, OARS worked with more than 25 youth organizations across the country this season.
“Experiences out in nature—especially those requiring additional cost and equipment—are typically out of reach for many underserved youth, though being able to try new things and experience something like rafting is a valuable experience for everyone,” said Carson McFadden, senior program coordinator with Soccer Without Borders Oakland. “Breaking down barriers to get any and all youth on these kinds of experiences allows the next generation to see what sort of amazing things are so close to us.”
Sozzi said that every trip OARS takes out with rafts full of kids is an important contribution to the work that’s being done to get kids and young adults excited about the outdoors, engaged with their public lands and interested in the landscapes and resources that are so often under threat. When asked, she said it’s hard to pick her favorite trip from the season, but said the “Ríos to Rivers trip was an honor to be a part of.” The trip brought together youth representatives from seven different river basins around the world that have been or could be impacted by dams. Some students in the exchange came from as far away as Myanmar and Chile and as close to home as the Klamath and Colorado Rivers, with the mission to empower the next generation of river stewards. In 2022, the same group will bring youth from 21 different river basins to witness the largest dam removal in history on the Klamath River.
“Many of the students who joined the trip depend greatly on their rivers but they've never had the chance to recreate in them. The joy and liberation that running the Klamath brought them was notable on their faces,” said Weston Boyles, founder and executive director of Ríos to Rivers.
Through the Pam & George Wendt Foundation teachers also have the opportunity to take advantage of new, fresh and exciting educational experiences for their students.
“No price can be put on the value of getting under-resourced students on the river and out into nature. Many of these kids were introduced to a world they didn’t know existed,” said Zinna Eaton, 8th grade teacher and Escape Club advisor at Uintah Middle School in Vernal, Utah. She and OARS joined forces to bring 40 kids on the Green River this season. “Many of them were able to find a sense of solace and belonging they were never able to find before this time and this trip forever changed their lives. They had a day that they didn’t have to worry about anything other than having a great adventure.”
Eaton added, “The next generation is the keeper of our future. If this generation is unaware of what is at stake then they won’t know how important it is to conserve and protect what we have now.”
In addition to trips for under-resourced youth, OARS, with the help of their guests, is set to donate more than $80,000 this year to nonprofit organizations working to protect our public lands and waters and to organizations that support the health and wellness of guiding communities and the next generation of river lovers. Every year, OARS donates one percent of company sales from select national park trips to the National Park Foundation and actively solicits pass-through donations from OARS guests to support regional conservation efforts.