By Christina Whiting
Last year, 71 Homer youth walked more than 16 miles of streets and beaches, collecting more than 500 bags of trash, 70 tires and thousands of pounds of heavy metal.
The kids were participating in Homer Wilderness Leaders annual DiRtBaG Clean-Up Week, and many saw the fruits of their efforts.
Among other duties, HoWL Peer Leaders Shaefer Nielson, 17, and Tadhg Bernardo Scholz, 15, are coordinating this year’s clean-up week. DiRtBaG (Discount Rates to Boys and Girls) is a program that provides opportunities for youth to earn scholarships for HoWL’s day trips and multi-day expeditions, while helping to clean Homer’s streets and beaches.
“The DiRtBaG program has allowed many kids whose can’t otherwise afford to go on trips to earn full or partial scholarships to be able to get out into the wilderness,” Scholz said.
The program started in 2010, when HoWL staff and board recognized a need.
“HoWL linked two of its core values — environmental stewardship and accessibility of its programs — to its mission to empower youth,” said Ty Dawn, Special Programs Coordinator.
In past years, students who raised the most money through pledges, as well as those who picked up the most litter, earned scholarships and were rewarded with prizes. This year, students are encouraged to set personal goals for the amount of pledges and litter they intend to collect.
“The brilliance of DiRtBaG is that only kids who genuinely want to go on our trips participate,” Dawn said. “Even though some of our prizes may motivate some of them to be high achievers, their desire to get out and play in the wild is all the motivation they need.”
In addition to environmental stewardship education, HoWL offers wilderness survival and leadership training around the Kenai Peninsula. They provide day trips for youth ages 8 to 18 and multi-day trips for youth ages 10 to 25.
Students learn to be conscious of the environment and explore the wilderness safely while they hike, backpack, camp, kayak, paddleboard, rock climb and more.
During a five-day training trip, some teenagers learn how to effectively lead wilderness trips and mentor youth. This is HoWL’s Peer Leadership program, which began three years ago.
“This program has developed into a year-round opportunity for some of our advanced students to become leaders on the trips,” said Libby Veasey, HoWL founder, Program Director and Executive Director.
The ongoing mentoring program facilitates opportunities for teenagers to take on roles and responsibilities throughout the year, from special projects and programs to leading day trips. Upon graduating the Peer Leader program, many are invited to apply for instructor positions.
Nielson and Scholz are grateful for the opportunities provided to them in their role as HoWL peer leaders.
“HoWL was a way to get outside and do something physical,” said Nielson, who got involved with HoWL while he was in middle school. “Nowhere else could I climb cliffs and mountains, and it’s much more fun than joining a sports team.”
While Nielson teaches and mentors, he also learns and is mentored in return.
“One of the greatest joys of being a peer leader is teaching others as well as being taught,” Nielson said. “It’s great to watch someone take off over the water ten minutes after teaching them to paddle, but it’s just as rewarding to learn how to make spoons with a couple of sticks with a fifth grader.”
Leadership responsibilities have also shown Nielson what his challenges are.
“Most of what I have to get over is myself,” he said. “It is a special kind of person who can crack jokes in a damp tent full of surly youths over a sputtering whisper-light stove during a rain storm.”
Scholz has been hiking, camping and skiing since he was very young.
“I just really like having fun outdoors and doing all the kinds of epic stuff that we do on HoWL trips,” he said.
Last year, Scholz was invited to be a peer leader. He took the first aid training, attended meetings and was soon helping to lead day trips.
“Since I have been involved in HoWL, I have seen lots of kids become more aware of the environment and using good skills in the backcountry to minimize our impact there,” he said.
Scholz’s role in the peer leader program is to help with events, assist at headquarters and primarily, to educate, be a leader and act as a role model to new HoWLers.
“To be a good mentor, you have to be good at talking to people you don’t know and you have to be open to other people’s opinions and ideas, or at least be nice when disagreeing and have good alternatives,” he said. “You must also be proficient in whatever you are teaching and be a patient teacher.”
One day, HoWL staff would like to offer their programs to local youth year-round. For now, the staff, Board and peer leaders are happy to continue to help Homer’s youth gain positive experiences with nature and with their peers, all in the vast wilderness that Homer and the Kenai Peninsula have to offer.
HoWL’s Clean-Up Week is April 28 to May 3. For more information on HoWL’s programs and to join the DiRtBaGs and earn your own HoWL expedition scholarships, call 399-4695, register at howlalaska.org or stop by the HoWL office at the base of the Homer Spit.
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