By Alyssa Walker
Ari Moulton was a 14-year-old foster kid living in Gorham when she was selected for the Kismet rock climbing program in North Conway. Today, she serves on Kismet’s board of directors helping other young people find their way by climbing steep granite.
Kismet offered Moulton, now 21, and living in North Conway with her 7-month-old son, Ellis, and her dog, Mally, “one constant in life.”
“Kismet had a huge impact on me,” Moulton said. “It opened a lot of doors for me and helped me figure out what I wanted and who I wanted to be.”
Kismet students — who come from urban and rural parts of New England in addition to the North Country — rock climb in the Mount Washington Valley for one week per summer for four years under the direction and care of certified climbing guides and trained staff.
Today, Moulton works at a local law office and a non-profit senior center. She hopes to study law so she can advocate for children — who like her not so long ago — are growing up in the state system and feel they have no voice.
Kismet, a nonprofit, accepts only a small percentage of those who apply to the program. Students must show financial need and the desire and commitment to try rock climbing.
Kismet Rock Foundation, Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cöos County Youth Place-Based Education Program, both funded partially by the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and other programs help students get out and enjoy their own backyards.
Ashley Guilbeault is a Whitefield Elementary School fourth grade teacher and the school’s outdoor program coordinator who loves watching students enjoy the mountains.
“Not all of them would get out in their own backyard if not for this experience,” Guilbeault said.
Each year, at least 30 Whitefield Elementary School students participate in AMC hikes, guided overnight hut trips, leadership courses, and weekly programs.
Thirteen students recently completed a six-week snowshoeing course that led them up Arethusa Falls and Mount Willard in Crawford Notch.
Every fall, older students can apply through the Whitefield outdoor program to complete an AMC leadership course—a hut trip led by AMC guides.
The cost to Whitefield students and other students at Cöos County schools is free. Programs like these cost anywhere from $27 per day per student up to $415 per student for overnights.
At first glance, it does not make sense that students in Gorham and Whitefield, towns perched at the northern edge of the Presidential Range of the White Mountain National Forest, would have limited opportunity to learn about and explore the mountains that surround them.
But for many students in Gorham, Whitefield and other communities in Cöos County, this is exactly the case. It’s not for lack of access — it’s lack of opportunity.
What were once thriving communities in New Hampshire’s booming lumber and manufacturing industries now face significant economic and social barriers. Cöos County has the highest poverty rate in the state, hovering at around 14 percent.
The AMC program and Kismet aim to fill that gap between opportunity — and place.
Veronica Young of Berlin and her five children participate in AMC’s Cöos County program. Once a week, they go to Pinkham Notch Visitors’ Center for “hands-on” science activities like identifying animal tracks and edible plants, hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing.
“They love it,” Young said.
Last summer all five of them participated in an overnight hut trip to Lonesome Lake and engaged in on-trail science lessons taught by AMC staff. The older two children, ages 14 and 15, also canoed and hiked on one of AMC’s Teen Wilderness Adventures trips for Cöos County students.
AMC trips like these cost about $1,000 per student, but are free for Cöos County students.
“It was one of the best adventures they ever had in their lives,” Young said.
When her two older children came home from their Teen Wilderness Adventures trip, they told her it was awesome. “I’m very grateful,” Young said.
Place-based education connects students to place. In these cases, it roots Coös County youth to the North Country by immersing them in the history, environment, culture, and economy of the mountains.
Andrea Muller, AMC’s North Country Program Director, said: “Most rural youth, similar to urban and suburban youth, don’t spend much time in the outdoors exploring and adventuring for all the same societal reasons kids everywhere don’t get outside: ubiquitous screens, working caregivers, and fear of injury.”
Muller said that one of the main goals of the program is to connect local youth to the “spectacular landscape that surrounds them.”
“The area’s special outdoor environment offers a unique and extremely gratifying lifestyle, and youth will be more inclined to choose it and work towards staying or returning to the region if they have an appreciation for the region’s environmental assets and for the recreation opportunities that abound for residents,” Muller said.
Muller added, “Instead of thinking that there is nothing to do in the area, they will understand and appreciate the really fun things there are to do in northern New Hampshire.”
Kismet founder Michael Jewell says that the greatest impact for Cöos County students is “that they have the opportunity to experience their local environment, which they’re not necessarily doing already—in depth.”
These goals dovetail with UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy’s 2014, Key Findings and Recommendations from the Cöos Youth Study. The report explained that despite the desire of many Coös youth to live near their families as adults, “more than half of Coös youth report they are unlikely to remain in their communities most of their lives and more than one-third say they are likely to leave and never return.”
For North Country kids like Ari Moulton, Young’s children, and Guilbeault’s students in Whitefield, these programs attempt to reverse that trend by giving them the chance to appreciate the beauty of their own backyard.
Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer and reporter specializing in education. She lives in the White Mountains where she reads, writes, cooks, and enjoys all things outdoors with her family. In past years, she has worked at Kismet Rock Foundation and AMC.