Outdoor Experiences Strengthen Community
By Darvi Brooks
More than offering year-round outdoor activities, the James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club aims to transform the lives of youth, educate the public about the history of people of color, and serve as a matchmaker between the beauty and serenity of the great outdoors and the human spirit. The club preserves the legacy of James Pierson Beckwourth through education and excursions, and empowers youth by teaching and demonstrating healthy choices and positive social behavior.
The staff of the James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club
Beckwourth, born in Virginia to a white plantation owner and an African-American slave woman in 1798, was raised in Missouri where he became a blacksmith by trade, an avid hunter, and a frontiersman. As war chief of the Crow Indians he learned, amongst many things, to speak numerous Crow dialects, in addition to his fluency in English, Spanish, and French. Beckwourth is remembered as a renowned explorer, responsible for discovering the pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1850, which served as a path into California for many settlers. He is also recognized as one of the co-founders of the city of Pueblo.
Founded in 1993, the mountain club named after Beckwourth has grown into a non-profit organization operating four main programs. The Living History program educates the community about the contributions of people of color in the West through historical enactments. The Historic Winks Lodge, currently under restoration, is a mountain resort hosting various family, business, recreational and educational events. The Outdoor Adventure Group guides one-day and multi-day customized excursions for all ages. Rounding out the offerings and perhaps the most significant program, the Outdoor Education Center organizes activities for youth development.
Club Grows with Community Support
Beckwourth President and CEO Cheryl Armstrong has always had an intrinsic love for nature and the outdoors. Her father was a medical doctor who proudly served inner city residents, and she has dedicated her career to doing the same, she said.
Born and raised in Detroit, Mich., Armstrong spent summers as a young girl rafting, canoeing, swimming, fishing, hunting, exploring, and doing just about everything a free-spirited child could find to do outside. In a recent profile in Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, she detailed her childhood in the great outdoors, proclaiming, “It was good for the soul then and it is good for the soul now.”
Armstrong is passionate about the Beckwourth club’s mission to bring the experience of the outdoors to inner city youth and residents. Armstrong believes the lack of opportunity, equipment, and education is a major factor in why African Americans and other people of color don’t spend enough time in the outdoors.
“In order to get that knowledge, they need access to a program or organization like the Beckwourth Mountain Club,” she said.
Club membership is open to families, singles, and seniors, and is culturally diverse with a concentration of people of color. Members have access to a plethora of outdoor events just about every weekend, year-round. Membership continues to grow as more friends and family join.
“The main strength of the JPBMC organization lies in its membership. Without volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do the things we do because we don’t have the funding,” Armstrong commented, adding that the club has a “wonderful board of directors who volunteer their time, provide support and leadership, and contribute financially.”
Carl Bourgeois and Sheila King of Civil Technology, Inc., are longtime active volunteers and supporters. Armstrong chuckles as she remembers the early days when the office was a 400-square-foot space in the basement of the Five Points Business Association Building. The offices are now on the first floor of Kimball Hall, the former Zone Cab building, purchased and renovated by Civil Technology.
The mountain club’s largest corporate sponsor is REI who has donated equipment, staff time, and money since 1998. The corporation has made significant contributions including equipment, tents, and backpacks, to jumpstart and continually support Beckwourth’s Outdoor Education Center.
A Natural Oasis for Youth
The center, founded in 1998, is a mentoring and development program for youth ages 8 to 18. The aim is to groom youth to be responsible and productive members of society through leadership programs, peer and parent accountability, and interaction with nature.
Michael Richardson has been the education center’s program director since its inception in 1998. Originally from Pennsylvania, Richardson has always loved the natural world and photography. He became the first African American to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-plus peaks in 1995.
Richardson’s entire attachment to the outdoors is “personal and spiritual.”
“It’s a cleansing that rejuvenates me and helps me to refocus on priorities and what’s important in life,” he said, admitting to his addiction to nature.
Having been a mountain club member since its founding in 1993, and wanting to empower young people, it was a natural progression for Richardson to work with the center when it was organized five years later.
“All kids want to feel like they belong. If they feel like they belong, that changes their whole outlook on what’s happening to them. If they feel loved and that people value and care for them, then there’s a whole lot you can do with them after that point,” he explained.
The center’s programs not only introduce kids to the outdoors and encourage them to pursue careers in natural resource fields, but their interactive training method develops the skills they need to grow and function properly in society.
“The need is with the children,” Armstrong said. “The support system has relaxed and there is a whole different generation coming up without confidence or a sense of self-esteem. The kids don’t know how to look someone in the eye.”
The program hosts between 30 to 40 “adventures” per year. The majority are free. Activities include visits to historical sites, service projects such as planting trees and building trails, campsite clean-ups in exchange for educational benefits, as well as recreation like hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, and camping.
Camping – the Beckwourth way – is not a cushy Winnebago experience with hot running water. They rough it. Every participant is involved in setting up camp, sometimes in the middle of the night in the cold. Richardson remembers a group having to endure windstorms that collapsed their tents, when they had to get out and fix them.
“The kids have to step out of their mental and physical comfort zone to learn that they can do more. This teaches them not to be afraid of challenge,” he said.
Richardson tells parents at the membership orientation he is going to give their children the opportunity to demonstrate growth in several different areas: attitude, responsibility, respect for others and for themselves, and self esteem. He sees youth benefiting in numerous ways, including developing and maintaining positive relationships with peers and adults. The kids learn how communicate with the proper language and attitude. Many members go on to become youth leaders, mentoring newcomers.
“It’s proof in the pudding for the parents when they see changes in their children ranging from interpersonal skills to excitement to start college,” Richardson said.
Programs Strengthen Families
Single mother Mary Pierce heard about the club’s youth education through word-of-mouth, and enrolled her son Mario, now 15.
“Before the club, Mario had lots of anger, self-esteem, and social issues, but the club has brought out his strength and his leadership skills,” she said. “He gets recognition at Beckwourth and his community service gives him a lot of self worth.”
Pierce is also a member of the hiking club and said it feeds her as much as the education center feeds Mario. Val Roberts, a board member, helped her buy a bike, which opened a new opportunity for her to bond with her son.
“Beckwourth is a God-send,” she said. “It has just made us so grateful.”
Jahsi Nkululeko, 18, has been a member since he was 12 and is a youth leader. This fall, he will be a freshman at Tuskegee Institute where he will study architecture. His two siblings, Niko, 16, and Tahsi, 14, are also youth leaders, who have been involved with the center for years.
“Mr. Mike is a great role model. I’ve been raised by practically all women, and it was good to see a positive, responsible Black male. He’s also a good leader although he usually lets the youth leaders lead,” said Jahsi, who plans to continue working as an adult volunteer leader during the summers while in college.
Niko, who used to be “a one-man team in sports,” said, “I thought I could do everything myself, but as I was with the club more, I saw how the team could shine by working together. I see life as a way for everyone to do their (collective) best and win.”
Their sister, Tahsi, is a little quieter but loves the center, saying it made her more open to wildlife and mountain climbing. Of the 14-ers she’s climbed, she said, “I didn’t think I could do it, but did and got to the top and had more confidence.”
Their mother, Ochi Nkululeko, first heard about Beckwourth’s programs from a friend whose kids were involved in the center.
“At first, I put them in just so they’d have something to do in the summer; like any recreational program. I didn’t know it would turn out to be this wonderful thing it turned out to be,” she said.
“Nowadays, you don’t expect your children to be loved outside of the family, but I’ve watched them change as they’ve learned they are important to more people than me. Their behavior has changed as they have become more community-minded, more generous, and more affectionate.”
Of the natural progression of youth leadership at the center, she said, “It’s like the changing of the guard. When kids get really involved they look forward to becoming a youth leader, then a senior youth leader, going on to college and having their picture on the wall as role models for the new kids.”
Lives Are Being Changed
Beside the youth leader pictures on the wall of the Beckwourth Mountain Club is a quote by Rachel Carson: "Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” It is certainly a foundational Beckwourth motto.
Kris and husband Chris England of Las Vegas are also longtime believers in Carlson’s sentiments. The couple used to work in Yellowstone for the national park system, where land is set aside for the benefit of all people. Adopting this concept into their lives, they operate Southern Utah Cabin Rentals, and invited Beckwourth youth as their first group to a cabin outside of Zion National Park in Utah for five days in June.
“One of the biggest values of getting kids away from the predictable, school for example, is that as soon as they are taken out of the ordinary, the extraordinary happens. The unpredictable happens and it is like a balanced diet, you have to have a portion of your life, month, week… when the unpredictable happens. From a deer crossing the path to a butterfly landing on your baseball cap, there are so many things that happen randomly and feed our souls like nothing else can. Its paramount to being balanced human beings,” Kris explained.
Beckwourth’s Armstrong agrees, saying, “Being in the outdoors can radically and drastically change the course of a child’s life. It frees their spirit and shows them there’s a different world out there.”
In her America’s Wild Places profile, Armstrong said, “People of color, whether they are African, Latino or Native American, have always had a deep connection to the land. They lived on the land, and they survived by living off of the land. We not only teach our young people about the environment, but we also teach them the importance of protecting, preserving, and managing this country’s natural resources.”
Editor’s note: For information about the James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club, visit www.beckwourthmountainclub.org or call 303-831-0564.
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