Connecting local youth to the outdoors.
photos by Colleen Winn
Intrigued by Big Sky Youth Empowerment’s strong connection to the outdoors, I headed to their headquarters one recent Tuesday to see what they’re all about. A huge, friendly dog and many grins greeted me at the door; the environment was immediately warm and inviting. After sitting in on a “Crux” workshop, I quickly learned the reason for all the smiling.
Big Sky Youth Empowerment (BYEP) offers an unconventional space for local teenagers to find support and friendship, while also participating in a number of outdoor activities. Started in 2001, BYEP doesn’t fit the mold of the average youth program—teens apply to become members, and although some counselors recommend it, participation is completely voluntary. Everyone has problems, and often times our success depends on who is there to help us. BYEP doesn't consider itself a place for "troubled" teens, but rather describes their members as "extraordinary." Founded by Pete MacFadyen, an avid outdoorsmen and certified counselor, BYEP truly embodies personal development and outdoor exploration.
In addition to outdoor activities, BYEP members participate in weeknight workshops.
The program consists of weekly workshops and weekend adventures. At the weekly workshops, a small group of teens get together with mentors and discuss challenges and share successes—no topic is too difficult to mention, and mentors often make a point to dive into uncomfortable, but important topics. No question is too personal and creating an environment free of judgment is BYEP’s goal.
BYEP members participating in a workshop.
The weekend adventures vary seasonally and include hiking, cleaning trails, photography, climbing, and one of the biggest perks, free skiing at Big Sky every weekend for 14 weeks. Members receive gear that has been donated to the program, and if they stay with BYEP for an entire year, they get to keep it. The connection between the outdoors and happiness is something we all can relate to, and when combined with the weeknight workshops, BYEP gives its members the opportunity for a lot of positive development.
Cool perks aside, listening to the mentors and members talk about their experience convinced me of BYEP’s value. They each provided a laundry list of positive things they have gained—a second family, learning self-worth, people to trust, learning how to make life decisions, constructive feedback, and learning that they aren’t alone, just to name a few.
Participants are encouraged to apply for BYEP their 8th-grade year, and stay with the program until they graduate from high school. Members are split into small groups by age, and work their way through each element of the program. The beginning focuses on personal development. This transitions to practical skills, like financial literacy. Within this overarching framework, the workshops also include discussions about each member’s week, where they highlight their highs and lows in order to facilitate helpful, supportive conversation.
BYEP focuses on creating a comfortable, judgement-free environment.
Four mentors were present at Tuesday night’s workshop. Brianna Moore, the group leader, learned about BYEP through a friend, and has found that BYEP’s benefits work both ways. “It really is a two-way street as far as being supportive,” she explained. “BYEP becomes a family.” Another mentor, Avela Grenier, said, “You get to know each other really quickly. It breaks down a lot of barriers.” The other two mentors, Deejay Newell and Rick Snidarich, echoed these praises, adding that they look forward to their time at BYEP every week.
Given the perks, BYEP gets a large number of mentor applications every year—but that doesn’t mean that outdoor-oriented, community-minded people shouldn’t apply to be a part of the program. BYEP has around 115 teens enrolled—the most ever since the group's inception—and is a great place to volunteer. It is also a great place to point any youth in your life who may be in need of support. Check out their website to learn more about this unique program and to keep track of the positive things they are doing for our community.