The Great Outdoors Giveaway

 

Outdoor School volunteers are changing the lives of Texas schoolchildren.

Last spring, Lenoir Hilbert tripped and broke her elbow in the first half mile of the Capital 10K, a popular annual race in Austin. For many people, an injury like that would be a good excuse to halt all non-essential activity. But Lenoir, an 80-year-old retired kindergarten teacher from Seguin, didn’t let her recuperating elbow get in the way of volunteering for Outdoor School.

A few weeks after her fall, Lenoir showed up in the Frio River Canyon, eager to help kids learn archery skills and do whatever else needed to be done for an educational retreat.

Quality volunteers are an essential part of Outdoor School’s educational program. Director Erik Silvius is working hard to expand a volunteer roster designed to secure at least one trained volunteer at each Outdoor retreat. Fortunately, the Outdoor program has a fine working model thanks to people like Lenoir and her husband, Jim.

The Hilberts, both retired public school educators, first volunteered for Outdoor School in 2010.

They’ve pitched in ever since for seven retreats per year, leading hikes up to Circle Bluff and teaching archery. The couple takes the effort so seriously that they sought and received certifications in the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP).

Erik is grateful for volunteers like the Hilberts who have “a higher level of skill in the presentation of the subject matter.” He remembers the time when people would show up saying, “I’d be great at teaching archery” and then, well: “We’d take a few minutes to show them the equipment and it would become evident that this person couldn’t tell the front of the bow from the back of the bow.”

Many Outdoor retreats boast another skillful volunteer in the person of Michael Olstad, a road bike racer with decades of professional riding experience. Olstad won over 150 races during his riding career, including two international races. At 69 years of age, Olstad still rides regularly, and is nearing 400,000 lifetime miles.

 

“Kids can do so much more than we think they can if we provide them the opportunity and the support.”

Michael Olstad

A high level of skill, however, is not required. Erik and his team can train most any volunteer to help with one of several activities, including fishing, hiking, geocaching, kayaking, rock climbing, star-gazing, arts and crafts, and more. Previous training is not required.

What is required is commitment.

Just as a bum elbow didn’t set back Lenoir, so Jim didn’t let chemotherapy get in the way of his volunteership. “You have to contribute,” says Jim. “We retired at 55, and if you just sit around, you’re gone. You need to be a productive citizen.” Plus, says Lenoir, “we are outdoors people. It’s just a joy to work out there. The whole place is amazing and does so much for so many kids.”

Like the Hilberts, Olstad has committed to volunteering at seven Outdoor retreats per year. “What attracts me the most,” he says, “is the chance to watch these kids develop.” He feels that over the course of a two-day retreat, students drop pretenses and “transition into becoming who they really are.

“Kids can do so much more than we think they can if we provide them the opportunity and the support.” During hikes to Circle Bluff, Olstad stays back with the slowest kids. After a while, the stragglers “start opening up, and what they share as they struggle up this climb can be amazing.

“If we provide whatever they need to find their success, then you see things you don’t get to see normally in the school environment.”

“If we did not have a committed volunteer base, I would not be able to pull this off.”

Erik Silvius

The Hilberts got involved because of their long-term friendship with Erik and his brother, Pete. Like the Hilberts, the Silvius brothers hail from the Seguin Independent School District. Erik and Pete ran outdoor retreats together in Seguin before Erik joined the H. E. Butt Foundation in 2011. Pete is now Coordinator of Physical and Outdoor Education for Seguin ISD, and he continues to anchor Outdoor School’s efforts with the Seguin schools who attend Outdoor retreats every fall and spring.

“Pete and Erik are two of the finest people we have ever known,” says Jim. “We are happy that they would even consider letting us participate in the program.”

For Pete, the gratitude runs in the other direction. “The program is only as strong as the content it delivers, and the competency of our volunteers is what drives the programming,” he says. “Regular volunteers are an absolute necessity. If we did not have a committed volunteer base, I would not be able to pull this off.”

Erik agrees. “When the bus is driving out at the end of the retreat, the great feeling those kids have is the main takeaway, and the volunteers have given those kids that gift.”

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