An Interview with 'Elevate Youth' Founder Alec Griswold

Alec, you're the man behind Elevate Youth. Can you tell us about your background and what inspired the creation of the Elevate Youth programs?

I grew up on a horse farm 20 minutes north of Baltimore, MD.  As a kid I could walk out the door and be immersed in the natural world.  I would build forts, explore wooded areas, climb trees, or grab my fishing rod and spend hours after school trying to catch fish.  As most young adults, I was trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into the world.  Nature gave me a space to escape but also to reflect and to this day that has not changed.  I have been fortunate to focus my adult life on working and playing in the outdoors, from running a kayak business in Massachusetts to operating an adventure outfitter in southern Chile.  The inspiration behind Elevate Youth came from nature’s positive impact on my life as well as the people that enabled that impact.  Simply, we all deserve to enjoy the natural world and have supportive role models that we can share this experience with.  

You've been involved in a number of community driven and outside experience programs leading up to Elevate Youth. Can you tell us what you learned from those and how EY is different?

For me, it boils down to connection and experience.  Having a connection with a group while experiencing an activity that may be outside of your comfort zone provides endless learning opportunities.  Furthermore when you are part of a team working towards a goal in an outdoor activity there are numerous opportunities to learn and improve critical life skills.  When I look at the programs and organizations that are nature based in the Boston region, the biggest missing factor is long-term commitment to the youth being served.  At Elevate Youth we combine outdoor activities with long term mentoring (> 1 year).  We believe that our impact comes from the combination of fun and challenging nature based activities and one v one mentoring as well as group mentoring.        

You're an avid outdoorsman. What about your experience in nature have you found to be most rewarding?

For me, it is those moments when you feel truly alive.  Whether it is flying down a mountain on skis, catching that elusive fish, or the simple act of taking a deep breath on a cool fall morning, you feel connected to your surroundings.  In today’s world, it is important to feel connected to something greater than yourself. 

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Is there a particular EY program or destination that is dearest to you?

Tough to narrow that down, but there is something about being in or around water that has transformative qualities.  Our Harbor program allows mentee’s and mentors to explore water-based activities with the support of a licensed outdoor instructor.  Studies show that being near water reduces stress, increases creativity, and brings us peace.  As most of these water-based activities are new to the majority of the youth we work with, it challenges our youth to overcome the fear of the unknown all while having supportive mentors to help in this process.  Furthermore, these programs serve as an introduction to nature for many of our youth and we hope to foster respect and stewardship for the next generation.

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A crucial part Elevate Youth is the fostering of a mentor/ mentee relationship. Tell us about your mentee Miguel and some of the times you've had together.

Through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Miguel and I were matched about 2 years ago and we have had many adventures.  We have focused our friendship on our mutual love of sports; from Celtics & Red Sox games to paintball and fishing.  It has been such a rewarding experience to see Miguel mature and develop into a young man over the past two years.  Our friendship has highlighted the importance and power of those ‘in-between’ moments.  Whether it is sitting on the riverbank or driving back from an exhausting hour of trampoline jumping at SkyZone, it is during these times where Miguel opens up and we talk about challenges of life.  I could not be more proud of his achievements thus far and look forward to our future adventures.

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It's proven that bringing urban youth into nature and providing a positive mentor relationship greatly increases the chance of a youth finishing high school, going to college, and generally succeeding. Can you tell us about these statistics and how the EY programs are tailored for this?

Although major studies on the effects of nature on urban youth have only recently become more numerous, there is a clear conclusion: Engagement with nature has positive behavioral, health, and development benefits for our youth.  Our Program philosophy is an evidence-based approach in which we focus on highlighting our youth’s strengths and create an environment in which they feel safe and supported.  We incorporate Positive Youth Development in all of our programs and make sure mentors have the skills to foster meaningful relationships.  Essentially we use our outdoor activities to strengthen the mentor relationship and help empower our youth to see their full potential.   

What's next for Elevate Youth?

Along with our outdoor activity programs, we also intend to facilitate community service programs in the neighborhoods that we serve.  These service projects are lead by our youth and aim to create a safer and healthier community as well as foster youth agency.  Furthermore our Leadership program is for high school aged youth in which we focus on building leadership skills through group activities in outdoor spaces. Within the next two years we aim to expand our programs by recruiting our own mentoring network from the outdoor industry.  We believe that gathering a strong pool of mentors who already have a passion for the outdoors will increase our impact on the youth we serve.   

Lastly, we hope to replicate our programs in other communities around Massachusetts within the next three years.