Emily Phelps and Lena Lane are the executive team behind The Venture Free Foundation - a group focused on providing nature based adventure programs that give children the opportunity to develop their social and emotional learning skills, practice environmental stewardship, and play outdoors.

Q: What first inspired you to give?

L: Growing up, I was no stranger to community service projects. My mom was my scout leader, my aunts co-leaders and volunteers, my grammy their leader before them. Needless to say, I grew up surrounded by some pretty amazing role models. The first time I really thought about my ability to make a difference was during a volunteer project with my girl scout troop in middle school. We visited a local homeless shelter for women and children, where we spent time playing games and singing songs with the kids. At the time, my family also had limited resources. I couldn't stop thinking about all of these children that lacked even the most basic of opportunities, and how close we had come to ending up in a similar situation. From that moment on I was dedicated to the concept of making a difference and finding some way to better the lives of disadvantaged youth.

E: Besides being surrounded by incredible role models in my family, I believe it was the nurses. When I was going through the process of being diagnosed with type one diabetes as a young child it was the nurses that made it as positive of an experience as they possibly could for my family and I. They were always bubbly and happy, and they made me feel comfortable with every hospital visit. It was then that I decided I wanted to make children feel comfortable, confident and brave - the way the nurses made me feel! This is why I tailor our programs to empower children in this exact way.

Q: How does your foundation give back?

E: Venture Free has been providing youth outdoor adventure programs to our community since 2014. We have evolved from our student referral system to a full scholarship program offering camp at low or no cost to families in need of assistance. In 2017 we made the exciting transition to a Non-Profit Foundation, and have been working toward launching outreach programs in nearby communities.

L: It’s definitely a labor of love! Right now we are working on expanding our operating area to surrounding communities with large numbers of under-served youth. Our goal is to offer fully funded, ongoing outdoor youth adventure programs. This year alone we are adding an additional 4 day camps and 2 camping trips specifically available to these communities, and we couldn’t be more excited! In the future we hope to expand our outreach programs to many more communities in need.

Q: Do you have any favorite moments from your adventures you’d like to share?

E: My favorite aspects of camp can’t be be narrowed down to a specific moment, rather, it is a series of moments strung together. Many of our campers started at 10 years old, and were struggling through activities. They were stubborn about hiking and different camping situations, and now 3 years later, they are the campers teaching and encouraging the others! Being able to watch their confidence grow is inspiring. As far as specific memories go, a favorite of mine goes back to our first summer operating. We were in Northern California on our summer waterfalls trip. We had been out for nearly a week, and had hiked to many different falls. It was the morning we were heading home from Burney Falls State Park, and we decided to make a quick stop as we were leaving, to sit at the bottom of the falls one last time. It was well over 80 degrees in the campground so naturally we were all dressed in shorts and t-shirts when we ran down the trail to the bottom of the falls where the temperature quickly dropped into the 50’s! I was prepared for the kids to quickly get bored of sitting in the cold with the chilly falls spraying them, and with a warm van waiting at the top of the trail, I figured we would be there for ten minutes. Tops. Wow, was I wrong! An entire hour had gone by as we sat on the rocks at the water's edge while the kids pointed out all of the beautiful and interesting details of the waterfall; the way small streams came from holes in the wall, the moss that grew and hung like curtains. We watched the birds dance in front of the giant falls, flying in and out of their nests hidden behind walls of water. I still can’t find the right words to describe the feeling of seeing those kids genuinely amazed by the power and beauty of it all.

L: It was the first morning of our most recent trip to the Eastern Sierra and we decided to head into Owens Gorge to do some exploring. We hiked for miles, crossing the creek at one point. We saw a great owl hopping out of a little boulder cave to greet the sun, and butterflies flitted about the entire time we hiked. On and on we went, until we reached the place where the map showed a convenient trail for exiting the gorge. Unfortunately, winter storms had washed away the switchback we had intended on climbing! We stopped for a moment to assess the trail and consider our options. We were running low on water, and knew the kids wouldn’t have the energy to hike all the way back to the van via the same route we had just taken. It became apparent that the safest thing for us to do was to make our way out of the gorge via freehand climb… so we did. It was safe, but the crumbling rocks and sandy shale made it a steep scramble nonetheless. We all climbed slowly, carefully placing our hands and feet. All the kids were so helpful and supportive of one another, working as a team as we climbed. As we pulled ourselves over the last boulders and stood on the solid dessert ground, we looked hundreds of feet below us at the small line of water running through the endless valley of rocks where we were sitting not an hour earlier. In every other direction we looked we were surrounded by snow capped mountains - the Sierras to the North and West, and the White mountains to the East. It was so great to see all the kids working together in such a wonderful way, and I think that it made us all feel like warriors.

Q: Lastly, what advice do you have for other folks who aspire to give?

E: Not much feels better than doing what you can to make a difference. It can be overwhelming because there are so many wonderful and deserving causes, and nobody has the time or money to give to every last one. I believe the best thing to do is to first decide what you are passionate about. You are more likely to have a greater impact on a cause you care about. Then decide what you have to offer. Everyone’s ability to give is different. Many people think that money is the best way to give - and for some, it is. Sometimes other options are just as beneficial (if not more!); such as volunteering your time, or donating requested goods. Also, don’t forget about your knowledge and skills! Some organizations may benefit greatly by having a contact they can reach out to when needing guidance in a particular area.

L: I find that the best times I have spent volunteering have been with friends. Grab a buddy or two and go volunteer at your local food bank for a few hours and see what I mean - doing social good is downright addicting. Start local! It feels great to effect change in your own neighborhood. Chances are, there’s an organization in your area doing something you think is really cool to make the world a better place. Personally, I feel beyond lucky to be able to do this work with my friends, and to live in such a wonderful community that supports and values our mission. If we all do our part now, the future will be brighter than we can imagine.

Photo Caption: Emily pauses for a photo while surveying the trail conditions in the Owens River Gorge