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Transformational Camping: A Q&A with Wilderness Foundation CEO Jo Roberts

Transformational Camping: A Q&A with Wilderness Foundation CEO Jo Roberts

The Wilderness Foundation is an amazing non-profit organisation that harnesses the power of the wilderness to transform vulnerable lives, whilst empowering people to conserve nature. As part of this work they have collaborated with Animas and Natural Flow to offer pop-up coaching sessions to troubled youth.

The camp out was Wilderness Foundation CEO Jo Roberts' way of thanking the coaches for all of their effort and time spent as part of the pop-up coaching events, and to provide opportunity for those that have an interest in working in the outdoors, or with young people at risk to meet one another and spend a few days reconnecting with nature.

I sat down with Jo to ask her about the partnership with the Animas coaches and what she hopes to see from the collaboration moving forward...

SamHi Jo, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Can you start by telling me about the Wilderness Foundation and how you came to be involved?

JoI got involved with the Wilderness Foundation (WF) in 1998, though I'd been aware of them my whole childhood as the founder was an amazing conservationist called Doctor Ian Player. He set up our partnership charity in South Africa called the Wilderness Leadership School (WLS) in 1956, and there was a huge connection between my family and Dr. Player, so I have always known about the work that they did. I moved from South Africa to Europe, and spent some time living in Luxembourg. Whilst I was living there I read Player's book, which was a Jungian book on conservation called Shadow and Soul, which got me very excited and I saw an opportunity to run a charity fundraiser by walking through the desert of Morocco.

So that's how I originally got involved, and then started to raise funds for a project that I'd fallen in love with that the WLS and WF were doing called Imbewu, which was taking inner city kids out into the reserves in South Africa so black kids who were never given the opportunities that some of the white kids had, were given chance to take part in learning about their ecological heritage really. My involvement grew from there really, I started to get really active in developing the WF youth programmes and then took over as Chief Executive in 2004.

From there I continued to grow the charity further, and it went from being a wilderness protection charity that took young people on wilderness trails in Africa, as that's what they mainly did, to today's Wilderness Foundation. We have now grown the charity as a team that serves the needs of communities, while simultaneously protecting wilderness and raising awareness of it. We talk about the positive benefits of wilderness on people, and in turn, endeavour to encourage and teach people to look after wilderness and wild spaces. So that's the sort of purpose of the charity, it's got a sort of feedback loop to it, of goodness, we hope.

S: Yes I could definitely feel that when I came down, from talking to you and everyone involved. How did the partnership with the animas coaches come to be and what role do they play at the Wilderness Foundation?

J: So I met Kevin Mascarenhas, through a mutual colleague called Tim Hopkins, either he got in touch with me or the other way round, I can't quite remember, but I met Kevin and he was very keen to get involved with helping the foundation with our strategy and development. He talked a lot about his business ideas, and then he came and gave some pro bono help to the foundation in his own right, and then did some strategy work with us. He then suggested we start to talk about the benefits of coaching and support for young people, and suggested seeing if we could get Animas interested in getting some of their coaches involved with the foundation, and so that's where it started.

S: Brilliant, and how have you found it to work? I guess it opens new opportunities, particularly for the young people involved in the foundation?

J: Yeah and I think that, you know we've got mentors, each young person has a mentor, at the early days of our youth at risk programme we had coaches, but we found the coaching was more around goal setting and purpose. But what a lot of our young people needed at that stage was someone to listen to them and almost mentor them which was slightly different from a coaching model. So we moved away from coaching to mentoring, but the mentoring doesn't do enough of the coaching. We then thought it's a lovely combination to have pop-up coaching with Animas, who come in and help drive some more of that purpose, goal setting, thinking of the future, supported by the mentors and staff, and so it didn't clash, it was an additional element of strength to the project.

Also, it's really important for our young people to interact and interface with new people, because that's all building up their skillset and their sociability skills, and employability skills etc. It has been really awesome, from what I understand the Animas coaches have loved the interaction with the youth, and the young people have really benefitted from someone who truly gives them extra deep listening and support, so again it's like that lovely feedback loop of everyone gets something out of it.

S: Yeah it's very much a symbiotic relationship. What changes and impact do you see on these young people as a result of the transformational coaching?

J: It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the outcome is, but I think what it does do, are those things that I was talking about previously: learning to interface with different people, learning that people are there to be trustworthy, you know the coaches come and they've got such a pure intention of giving themselves to try and help, and its good for the young people that often have had some very bad experiences with adults, to have these adults that really want to help them. I think they feel that the coaches are interested in them, and everybody likes to feel like people are interested in us, right?

And actually the Animas coaches are all different, and when the young people arrive and meet the coaches, it's quite a big deal for them as they are meeting someone new and going off for a walk and talk with this new person but it just always seems to work. We have only had one young person in three sessions of pop-up coaching who has been quite resistant, but he was a particularly troubled young man and he had some really big issues with autism and that sort of thing, so it wasn't easy for him to completely relate to the experience. But absolutely everyone else has found it to be extremely helpful.

S: Ah that's amazing! I hear that Prince Harry made it down to visit last year? What is his involvement?

J: So he was here last September, he had a two hour visit with us. He met our conservation education programme youth, then spent a long time sitting around the fire with the young people from the Youth at Risk Programme, talking about his thoughts and feelings on mental health and how important the wilderness and nature is, it's all the things that seem to tick his boxes as well.

S: I'm assuming he is as lovely in real life as he comes across in the media?

J: Ah he was so nice. So down to earth and easy to talk to. I have had to chat to royals before, and sometimes you don't know what to talk about, it can be quite intense and awkward and you can feel a bit shy, but actually he was so easy to get on with. And we had a couple of mutual people that we know so that helped, and because he loves Africa so much that also helped. So we had a little cross sections of things that we were both so passionate about, so it made it easier, but you had to remind yourself that he is not your best friend and is actually royalty haha. Anyway he was fabulous!

S: I guess my last questions is what next? Any plans? What would you like to see going forward from this collaboration between the Wilderness Foundation and Animas?

J: I think we have got the next turnaround starting, so we have around twenty people on our waiting list at the minute, it's just down to me getting myself off the ground. I think there's potential there for animas to, possibly I haven't discussed with them yet, but possibly to get involved further down the project with maybe running a workshop with me, or perhaps getting the coaches to run a workshop on behaviour or transformation, or something and then coming back up for pop-up coaching. You know there could be more threads I think, and I think also to manage to get into the programme another pop-up coaching day, would just be awesome. And possibly to look at which coaches might want to offer more, and whether when the young people graduate, they wanted to continue to do some Skype coaching etc. But that's just my dream wish list!

S: Thank you so much for your time Jo, I look forward to coming back to the Wilderness Foundation soon!

If you'd like more information on the Wilderness Foundation and its projects you can find our more here. For those that are interested in getting involved with the Wilderness Foundation, whether you want to participate in the pop-up coaching sessions or perhaps just want to help young people whilst enjoying beautiful wilderness spaces, you can reach Jo and her team by email, or by calling 0300 123 3073.

Also check out their social channels: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

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