By: Mara Addison

My fourth grader was swimming at age one, hiking at four, kayaking at five, and casting for fish at six. By the time she was seven, she was Venture Outdoors’ first unofficial Junior Assistant Trip Leader, encouraging and entertaining the younger children during outings on which I was part of the leadership team. At eight, Mollie took up boogie boarding. She also contributed ideas for future kids’ outings (“Let’s help homeless animals”). She will soon be nine years old. I think she might be leading her own family geocaching outings come spring. By 10 she may be petitioning to join the Junior Board.

Mollie has little first-hand experience with gender barriers and even less patience for them. In her world, sugar and spice are optional, but sweat and strength are mandatory. Being outdoors, and mastering the activities involved, makes her feel brave and bold. It teaches her that obstacles are optional and she is able to accomplish anything to which she sets her mind.

I did not come from an active family. I rode my bike, as kids in the eighties did, but exercise was hardly encouraged and never mentioned. The idea of being outside – for fun? – was laughable. Our life was sedentary, and a Sunday drive in the car was a big family adventure. As an adult, activity meant gym-based aerobics, sweating on the treadmill, or an hour in-home walking video. It was a punishment for too many donuts or pizza, and it was most certainly not enjoyable.

Skip ahead many years to my discovery of kayaking and then hiking through the Western PA Field Institute, which later became Venture Outdoors, and a new passion was born. Kayaking made me feel powerful. Sitting in the middle of North Park Lake, blue herons gliding above me, kayak firmly beneath me, is my favorite place to be. Hiking through the woods made me feel at peace. Membership in the Venture Outdoors community gave me a safe haven during the break-up and eventual dissolution of a 20-year marriage in which being active was, well, actively discouraged. Outings were a place where I was always welcomed and encouraged to spread my wings. Venture Outdoors taught me that women could be strong and beautiful and mighty. It was only natural that I become a Volunteer Trip Leader and, of course, bring my young daughter with me into this positive and nurturing environment.

My daughter tells her friends she is a member of Venture Outdoors. She has a Venture Outdoors patch on her school backpack. She lists among her hobbies kayaking and trail walking. She has her own backpack. She comes to the Trip Leader Socials. My partner Kelly and I take our three girls on weekly adventures – on the water, in the woods, in the pool, on the trails. Mollie is looking forward to “leading” our autumn family outings and asks that you, dear reader, bring your kids to join her. She gave particular shout outs to the Pumpkin Decorating and Candy Cane Hikes and promises the kids will have fun. (“It’s painting. And candy. And we might see animals. No brainer.”)

When I asked Mollie what she wanted other girls to know about Venture Outdoors, she laughed. “You know what to tell them. Girls should come outside to play. We have fun. We help other people have fun- — even boys. Girls can do anything. We rule.”