A conversation with Eric Aaholm, Executive Director of YES Nature to Neighborhoods.
Lead Advisor, and YES Treasurer, Matthew Gatt, CFP®, sat down with Eric Aaholm, the executive director of our community partner, YES Nature to Neighborhoods. They discussed Eric’s journey and the origin, mission, and future direction of YES. Below is a summarized transcript of their conversation.
Eric’s Journey to YES
MG: What was your journey to YES?
EA: I had the privilege of growing up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and was surrounded by nature from a young age. Every day I experienced the outdoors and the sense of freedom and possibility that nature offered. New discoveries were under every rock and beyond the next overlook. I spent hours in this environment, talking and reflecting with friends on our circumstances and life’s myriad questions. Some of my closest relationships developed in the outdoors.
In my 20’s, I committed myself to advocacy work helping immigrant youth and families create connections and gain a sense of belonging in a new culture and environment. Surrounded by 13,000-foot mountains, rivers, valleys, and seasonal extremes that helped shape these raw landscapes, nature was ubiquitous. It served as a common ground for building relationships and teaching lessons that fostered new discoveries between myself and the 30 youth and families for whom I was a cultural and linguistic bridge. While my primary role was to match youth with adult mentors, I was called upon to help in other ways. I interpreted in the home, school classrooms, and doctors’ offices and translated documents for other nonprofit providers. Municipal leaders invited me to give voice in meetings to the challenges and concerns that a growing Latino population faced in the community.
Some of my closest relationships developed in the outdoors.
I had only been in California for a little over a year, working on my MSW degree when I was introduced to YES Nature to Neighborhoods (YES) as a volunteer in 2004. It was the perfect blend of the things I knew so well and valued most: immersing people in nature and developing a sense of self and belonging. YES took the nonprofit and public models I had previously worked in, with their predominant focus on youth, and expanded them to involve the whole family. This holistic approach of engaging the community made absolute sense to me, and it’s what drives our agency’s values and decision-making to this day.
2020 marks my 16th year with YES and 13th year as its executive director. Over these 16 years, I’m proud how we’ve been able to maintain our holistic focus on family engagement, while also evolving our programming in such a way that gives our youth and adult participants alike the experiences, tools, and training to become empowered leaders in Richmond and beyond.
Agency Background & Evolution
MG: What is the origin story of YES, and what community does it serve?
EA: Over the years, YES has been highly responsive to the Richmond community and engaging its residents. When the agency was founded in 1999, the need for out of school enrichment programming was in high demand. For starters, we sent hundreds of kids to sleepaway summer camp around the Bay Area. Having now sent over 5500 youth to summer camp during our twenty-one-year history, this program continues to be a cornerstone of our work today. As youth returned from camp, it became clear that parents were interested in the experiences their children were having and wanted to share in those experiences. This resulted in the organization’s launch of Family Camp, which has evolved into a community convening model for YES families as well as resident leaders from Richmond.
The first is nature…we leverage its beauty and wisdom to inspire participants to gain a sense of belonging…
When youth exhibited a thirst and eagerness to keep the feeling and inspiration from camp alive, YES developed its Camp-to-Community program for teens, which increased the number of outings in nature and with peers throughout the year. It also tapped into the interest and need from participants for leadership development. Youth and parents who were involved over several years in YES programming demonstrated a leadership quality that staff and others invested in. Health habits changed from the choices people made to cut out soda from their diet to their interest in making changes to their school and built environments. These interests from students and parents alike helped to define the creation of YES’s Adult Leaders Program, the Youth Engagement Team for teens, and the Climate Leaders in Action group of Fellows.
Through our place-based program models, YES is developing Richmond youth and adults to become the next generation of healthy leaders. To do this, we rely on a couple of key ingredients: The first is nature, where we leverage its beauty and wisdom to inspire participants to gain a sense of belonging, connect to peers of diverse backgrounds, and navigate new environments. And the second ingredient is our progressive, 10-year leadership pathway whereby YES participants engage in activities and training to explore their leadership style and practice it alongside supportive adult role models.
Our commitment and alignment with local, regional, and statewide efforts to bring greater equity, inclusion, and diversity to the outdoor field has made YES an advocate among partners who are re-visiting and changing their practices for the benefit of youth and communities who have been historically excluded from the outdoors. And our staff, many of whom share the backgrounds and life experiences of our community, are effective role models and leaders who open doors for participants to take safe risks and grow.
MG: Do you have any success stories you can share?
EA: For the past several years, YES has hired a Peer Advocate whose role it is to support programming during the year. Having been a participant with YES since the age of 5, it was Aswun’s dream to become YES’s Peer Advocate when he graduated as a senior from Richmond High in 2019. From the age of 5 to 18, Aswun has taken every opportunity to grow by experiencing the camps, becoming a team leader, and then a counselor. In Aswun’s own words, “[YES] shaped my character. Communicating with people ten years younger than me, I’ve learned how to connect with people more, compromise, and plan.” YES has also helped him build 21st century skills in writing a resume, paying bills, paying taxes, and time management. This is serving him well as a newly enrolled college student pursuing a career in computer science and engineering.
Spending time outdoors has opened Aswun to other kinds of opportunities as well. He went from imagining a life of staying in the city and never having time to go outside to knowing that he can go to a park or go kayaking. “It changed how I experience life,” he says. He remembers when things were different, when he struggled in school, feeling overlooked and passed by. At YES, on the other hand, participants experience connections, friendship, and being part of what Aswun describes as a genuinely loving friend group.
“Every single time I walk in the office, everyone has a smile on their face. Kids are going on trips and having fun,” he says. In addition to the stable relationships, he values the pivotal moments, like the day he cried with joy when he was hired as a Peer Advocate, a role he’d been aiming for since he was eight years old.
*A portion of this excerpt was taken from an article written by our partners with ReThink Outside.
YES Response to COVID-19 & What Lies Ahead
MG: How have you reacted to recent events, and what opportunities have you found from this crisis?
EA: Aswun’s enthusiasm buoys us all, especially during such unprecedented times as we collectively face a global pandemic that prevents us from gathering together safely in the ways we desire. Resiliency, leadership, and the healing power of nature are core to YES’s mission, and we will continue to focus here during COVID-19 and beyond. People feel the strain of the pandemic on the mental, physical, and economic health and wellbeing. We believe that outdoor access, especially for under-represented Richmond residents who will continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, will be just as vital as other basic needs when our community and state move ahead to relax the guidelines for safe gathering and interaction.
Our authentic conversations and regular outreach to participants which revealed their hardships led us to launch a Resilience Fund
Our 2020-24 strategic plan will likely be modified, but what will undoubtedly remain is our deep, intentional planning and tailored response to the community. From the outset of the pandemic, we have put together the requisite tools and responses to serve our community with a steady hand over what we anticipate could be several waves of shelter in place orders. Our team has worked diligently to share resources, provide virtual programming, and continue to keep our ties and relationships strong. Our authentic conversations and regular outreach to participants which revealed their hardships led us to launch a Resilience Fund, through which we are providing direct financial assistance to YES families.
In the anticipated absence of summer camp for youth this summer, we hope to provide day outings to beloved local parks here in Richmond to provide youth and families with access to the power of nature and community, and to continue to nourish one another. We are planning for fall and beyond as well, which includes launching a new alumni network, deepening our work with middle school students, and serving as the backbone organization for the Richmond Outdoors Coalition. We are developing multiple scenarios to make sure we can engage with our participants via the outdoors – be it physically or virtually.
MG: And what about long-term goals?
EA: Our key will be to adjust, but not compromise our mission. Staying relevant during the crisis is crucial and our ability to respond gracefully under external pressure is an attribute that lies within our values and has been demonstrated in times past. Authentic conversation and connection have always formed the basis of our unique model for developing leadership, resilience, and community empowerment, and we will continue to foster these elements in our essential work moving forward.
If you’d like to learn more about YES Nature to Neighborhoods, please visit their website https://www.yesfamilies.org/
For questions about North Berkeley’s community engagement and how we work with nonprofit organizations, please call (510) 528-5820, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org