Project ASCENT is ascending — like a rocket. The non-profit to help kids learn to enjoy the outdoors seems to have found a sweet spot in the hearts and minds of Sanders County and is surging into action.
With the straightforward goal to “get kids outdoors and connected to nature Project ASCENT has already garnered rave reviews from local kids who have found connection and meaning in life outside.
A team of highly skilled and motivated board members bring decades of experience in education, mental health, outdoor activities, and addiction prevention in treatment, plus a twinkly-eyed enthusiasm and knack for making things fun. Founder and CEO Rob Christianson and the board (Angelo Alderete, Andrea Fenandez, Anita Brown, Doug Padden, Ron Hawkinson, Victoria Forkin, and Simone Schilthuis) are keenly aware that the low average income in this area means many families cannot afford to send their kids off to high-priced summer camps to explore the mountains and develop the emotional and potentially life-changing memories camping can bring.
So they offer it for free. Camps include all the food, equipment, fun, and staffing at a price every single kid can afford.
LAST SUMMER was the first time overnight camps were offered, though educational day-camps were offered through the Thompson Falls Schools summer programs the previous summer. Because these were funded through school-specific GearUp grants, they were only open to schools on that program, but that still brought 55 kids together from Troy as well as Thompson Falls.
“Some of the feedback we got last year was, ‘I really liked getting to meet new people’, ‘I feel better at meeting new people now’, and ‘I’m excited to meet more people,’” says Fernandez. Christianson adds, “Meeting through shared experience is the best way to relate, to communicate.”
Such experiences can have deep and lasting impacts on lives. Christianson, who also serves as counselor at Thompson Falls Elementary School, intends for Project ASCENT to help the community combat addiction, poverty, mental and physical illness due to sedentary lifestyles. “Addiction and depression can often be traced to too much time indoors,” he says. “If I’ve learned anything in my years of teaching, it’s that you have to find the root, start at the very basic level of a problem, to make lasting change.”
The camps, however, are not set up as treatment programs. They are learning adventures with excitement, conversation, working together, and a chance to unwind in natural surroundings. This July there are five multi-night camps — two in Bull River area, two at Blossom Lake, and a new three-day kayak camp trip on the Flathead River. At each of these, kids learn about everything from camp cooking and wilderness skills to native American history and culture and river biology. And, of course, they enjoy water fights, swimming, singing, talking, all that fun camp stuff that lives in memory for the rest of their lives. There will be employment opportunities for high school students to help out, too, and they can even earn high school credits for their efforts.
THE BOARD is moving forward with plans to acquire land and buildings on Blue Slide Road that will become an outdoor recreation center with cross-country ski trails and many other activities. Cabins will be available for parents to rent while their kids are out camping in the wilds, and for other events.
Project ASCENT is pursuing grants and raising funds locally to support their mission to offer all of this to the kids for free. Their fundraisers have included a corn hole tournament and a winter carnival with snowshoe races and warming fires.
Coming up Saturday, April 13 is the second annual “Camping is in Tents” event at the Elks Lodge in Thompson Falls, featuring an authentic Cuban Dinner cooked by Fernandez’ parents, raffle prizes, and an auction. Tickets are $25, available online at projectascent.org or at the doors, which open at 5:30 p.m. for happy hour, with dinner at 6:30 p.m.
Last year’s dinner raised enough to purchase all of the equipment for the 2018 camps. With that level of support, says Christianson, “The sky’s the limit. This has endless possibilities.”