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Connecting Maine students to the outdoors.

Teens to Trails

Teens to Trails works with schools to build meaningful relationships between students, caring adults and the natural world while sharing fun outdoor experiences. Shaw’s supports Teens to Trails through the GIVE BACK WHERE IT COUNTS Reusable Bag Program.

Tell us about Teens to Trails.

Teens to Trails was founded in 2006, as the result of a tragedy. A couple moved to Maine from the Washington, DC, area to raise their two girls in an outdoor setting that matched the values of their family. They found the lifestyle that they were seeking in beautiful Maine!

But as the girls got into their teenage years, there was a natural separation, and the girls wanted to spend more time with their friends, not their family for weekend outings. Their parents said to bring their friends along on these family activities, and they were quite alarmed to see that many of the girls’ friends didn’t have outdoor experience and the equipment needed, such as the right footwear for a hike. Even though we have this incredible landscape here in Maine with woods, water and trails in our backyard, it doesn’t mean that people get there.

In the summer of 2005, their younger daughter, Sara, was killed in a car crash at 15 years old. The family was devastated. Friends encouraged them to honor the memory of this wonderful girl. And so, a combination of a love of the outdoors and the teenage age-group became Teens to Trails. They had no idea it would still be going 16 years later! And we have a summer camp scholarship in Sara’s name.

The core program that we offer is to help Maine middle schools and high schools start an outdoor club as a co-curricular social experience to share time outside that’s noncompetitive, that’s inclusive to all and that makes no presumption that one has experience in what to do outside or the equipment needed. But when I began working for the organization three years ago, I felt that there were more opportunities for us to achieve our mission, which is to connect Maine students to life-changing outdoor experiences.

In addition to our core program of helping schools start an outdoor club, we are testing two additional methods:

Life Happens Outside Challenge: Life Happens Outside is our tagline and it’s trademarked to us. It is an invitation to adventure! The Life Happens Outside Challenge runs the final week in October for any and all middle schools in Maine to get outside as much as possible. Within the school day, outside of the school day, overnight, early in the morning, just count all your minutes outside. And that includes the entire school population; every student, every staff and faculty member can rack up their minutes. And then we tally the total against the school population, so as not to favor bigger schools over smaller schools. We give away $1,000 prizes to the top three schools.

That has brought so much energy and fun. There were literally thousands of hours of outside time that accumulated. Kids were doing homework outside, they were camping out, walking the dog…it was so neat to see this all over the state.

Outdoor Explorers: With this new program, we go beyond the school setting into the municipal setting, working with recreation departments, rec centers and teen centers and helping them start an Outdoor Explorer program.

It’s a six-week chance for unstructured outdoor play, where middle schoolers can explore public lands in their communities with an adult leader and high-school-age co-leaders. For example, they might not know about land trust properties or public parks or waterfronts. Each week we go to a different location, and we just roam around and explore, looking for animal tracks, building forts, sledding or whatever the season brings.

What services do you provide to the community?

The barriers that we’ve identified to the outdoors are money, gear, skills, time and a buddy to do it with.

MONEY: Teens to Trails solicits corporate support, and we pass it through to schools as grants to address the financial limitation for connecting youth to the outdoors.

GEAR: We accept gear donations and give and loan equipment, and partner with Maine GearShare to make sure that kids have what they need to be comfortable outdoors.

SKILLS: We offer training sessions in wilderness, first aid, knot tying and campfire cooking, what to put in your backpack…

TIME: To help address tight schedules, four times a year we offer predesigned programs. An outdoor club can just show up, and we’ve done all the planning for you.

BUDDY: We always emphasize community and envision a future when all Maine students have the chance to be outside together. Our club structure, statewide network and group programs are building meaningful connections between students, their teachers and the natural world.

We always emphasize community and envision a future when all Maine students have the chance to be outside together.

What sets Teens to Trails apart from other nonprofits in your community?

It’s quite specific. For high schoolers, there’s an increasing development of a personal identity, and a social pressure that you need to grow up and be better. You need to get a job; you need to get into college; where are you going in your life? Contrary to all of that, our programs are completely noncompetitive and nonperformance based. We intend to create that downtime to just be…to just be outside together.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work you are doing.

Through the work of a partner organization that’s focused on public health, I became aware of the need for young people to feel that they matter in the world. Our youth can feel like an invisible population. You may have seen teenagers loitering and think, go do something useful. They don’t want to be at home. They want to be in a social setting, and there isn’t often a defined space for them to be. They haven’t been introduced to the outdoors or the public trails. It’s hard for them to feel a sense of value or purpose.

I realized we run an organization for the benefit of youth, and yet we did not have a way for youth to provide input to our organization. So we started a Youth Advisory Council. It was the absolute highlight of last year to have this direct connection to the teenagers who so bravely and willingly gave us their opinions and their insights and why the outdoors is important to them. We’re finding more and more ways to bring students into the organization through internships, advisory council leadership roles, learning how to be thoughtful of their time, paying them a stipend, acknowledging their work appropriately and just really being conscious of equal status for their contributions.

We select the advisory council from high school applicants around the state. We chose six students for our first council, and we’re aiming for 10 students this year. I don’t know how we did it without them, honestly.

What is your greatest achievement or contribution to the community?

We’re extremely proud to be offering leadership opportunities for youth and increasing awareness of the importance of listening to their ideas and meeting their needs and desires for social connection, healthy risk taking and adventure.

What do you want people to know about Teens to Trails?

Access to the outdoors is a basic human right, and that right needs to be extended to the school environment and within the school day.

We feel healthier, literally more grounded and more connected when we have a chance to be outside, and we should not limit the learning to something that happens within the walls of a classroom.

Access to the outdoors is a basic human right, and that right needs to be extended to the school environment and within the school day.

How are you using the funds you’ve received from the Shaw’s GIVE BACK WHERE IT COUNTS Reusable Bag Program?

We put everything back into the program aspect of our budget. What comes in philanthropically goes back out directly to support our outdoor programs. We use foundation money for our general operations and then all other philanthropy, like the Shaw’s program, goes right back to the kids.

Is there anything you would like to add?

We welcome donations of used outdoor equipment. Please check our website (, which has all the details of needed items and a Gear Donation Form to submit to us.

Does your school have an outdoor club? It should! Teens to Trails is here to help you start it. If you are a parent, teacher or student and your school wants to start an outdoor club, please contact us at

Alicia Heyburn is Executive Director of Teens to Trails. Her work is centered on building respectful, reciprocal relationships between people and the outdoors for personal health, ecological awareness and thriving communities.