Pathfinder Outdoor Education from A to Z

Having a tree-rific time!

From August 2018 to September 2019, I had the sublime pleasure of working with the fine folks at Pathfinder Outdoor Education. We laughed, we cried, we sweated, we laughed some more. And, hopefully, we made an impact on the lives of our clients along the way. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my year with Pathfinder. There are so many stories, inside jokes, and genuine connections we made with each other and with the kids who were entrusted in our care. This was truly a life-changing year for me, and as I look back I see that working for Pathfinder was more than just a job. I am thankful for the training and time that was invested in me, and I am also thankful now to have a full-time job (and benefits!) with AFS-USA, another organization that nestles deep in my heart. 

But what brought me here today is to document some of my fondest memories of working with Pathfinder. To keep things simple and sweet, I’ve used the alphabet to eke out the essence of what Pathfinder means to me. Enjoy!

A is for Abram Winters, the man who introduced the founders of Pathfinder to recreational tree-climbing. Tree-climbing is one of the highlights of any program for staff and participants alike, and we are ever-grateful to Abram for planting the seeds for this idea so that we could branch out. The live oak tree at the Pathfinder office in St. Pete hosts a free climb the first Saturday of every month, and this tree is named after Abram. 

B is for Barney, the first Pathfinder who I met in person. I still remember that first day, a day of staff training, vividly. I had interviewed for the job from Costa Rica and had not met any of the staff in person until I started work. As I got out of my car in the parking lot, Barney pulled up next to me and immediately welcomed me to the fold. I was thankful to have a quick friend, and also to have his guidance with getting into the building. Training started with lots of hugs and introductions, then a game of 52 card pick-up (this version has silly tasks like “stand close to someone until they ask you to go away” and “tell 5 people your middle name”), followed by a group circle and the prompt to strike a pose about how that activity went for us. Everyone was 100% in, willing to be silly and play along. I knew then that I had found a great group of people. 

Training days at Pathfinder are full of fun moments too, like this game of belaying and balance where you tried to maintain your balance while trying to throw off your partner. Meanwhile, your partner does the same.

C is for challenge, one of the foundational elements of any Pathfinder program. We would invite participants to challenge themselves while stressing that a) different people will encounter different challenges (and that’s ok!) and b) participants are empowered to have their challenge of choice, meaning that they can decide what their own limits are. My own outlook on life was changed by these principles. I find that now I am more empowered than before to speak up for myself and what my own comfort levels are.   

D is for dancing because we did a lot of it! There were many impromptu song-and-dance numbers, particularly when we were setting up gear or sitting down to a meal. And of course, we all had our best and brightest moves for the Hootenanny, an evening program of live music (thanks to my talented colleagues!), kids in costume, and line dancing.  

E is for early mornings. There were lots of those too, especially on days when we had a lot of technical set-ups to do or when we were running a day program at Bok Tower.  

F is for food waste. One of the most eye-opening lessons for me came from a mealtime program we did with some groups about food waste. The challenge was for students to take only what they would eat at the start of the meal, then scrape any uneaten food on their plates into a bucket. We would then weigh the bucket, which contained the group’s collective food waste, and have an interactive discussion about food waste. We would then track the waste to see how far the group could reduce their waste. I admire some of my colleagues for their passion in bringing this issue to the attention of our participants. And why not? After all, the USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that in 2010, 31% of the food supply was wasted. One-third of all food in the garbage! This corresponds to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion (with a B) worth of food. Wow. 

G is for Gopher Tortoise. These rapscallion reptiles are a fairly common site on Pathfinder programs. They are also the mascot of my cohort of Pathfinders who started working in earnest in the fall of 2018. Margot, Carlyn, Danielle, Erika, JB, Kelly: Goph-tos unite!

H is for harness, as in harnessing our collective power! And also climbing harnesses, those too because we sure did spend a lot of time biding our bladders while leading belay teams. Thanks to many funny renditions of the “tight pants dance,” a piece frequently performed in ground school when we taught the kids how to get into the gear, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how to properly put on and check for the fit of a harness. 

I is for invitation. Another key takeaway for me is the power of the language of invitation. Instead of telling a group, “OK, here is what you’re going to do…”, the language of invitation sounds more like “I invite you all to try…” Which one would you rather hear from an authority figure? The language of invitation is part of why I felt so welcomed and warm on my very first day. No one really likes being told what to do, but everyone loves an invitation!

J is for jokes, especially puns. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are a part of Pathfinder culture, especially while Eric is around.

Playing a game of stealth with a group of young students at Bok Tower.

K is for kids. Of course! The community Pathfinder seeks to serve is largely made up of pre-teens and teenagers. Every group had its own dynamic. There were some groups that I would’ve loved to work with for much longer, and other groups had more challenges. I laughed with the kids, cried a few times in front of them, probed them about their plans for the future, and failed horribly when they tried to teach me Fortnight dance moves. While my career as an educator started mostly as a coincidence, I have found that I truly do enjoy being with young people. 

L is for learning, a crucial element of the entire Pathfinder experience. Participants, chaperones, and staff all have something to learn from any given program. I remember teachers telling me as a kid that they learned more from us students than we did from them. I never fully understood this sentiment before, but seeing the incredible kindness and ingenuity that some participants showed, I have a better understanding now of what my former teachers meant.

M is for monkey fur, the fine fibers found between old fronds on some types of palm trees. The fibers are so named because they are soft and fine like monkey fur (I would know!). Coincidentally, these fibers are highly flammable and make excellent tinder. Pointing out monkey fur (and ensuring every kid got some so they at least had a chance at making fire) is a foundational part of Pathfinder fire school. 

N is for nature. Being able to work outside and be close to nature was a huge reason why I wanted to work at Pathfinder in the first place. I was not disappointed! The Point of Pines at Dayspring, Alafia River at Cedarkirk, and lake a Montgomery were some of my favorite spots to commune with nature, either alone or with a group.  

O is for opportunity, is in what a wonderful opportunity it was to work for Pathfinder. I mean, here I am, almost a year later, reflecting on how much I loved this job, the people I met, and the skills gained. Many thanks to everyone who remains in Tampa Bay to keep this wonderful organization going even through this very difficult time!

P is for Pathfinders! It’s not a cop-out, it’s a shout out! Brace yourself for a big block of text full of love and gratitude to the following individuals:

Who wouldn’t want to hang out with these lovely ladies? From left to right: Carlyn, Yeni, Bre.

Alyssa for all the love you put into your work, whether it be for Pathfinder or the Park Service. ❤ Amy for steering the ship through the tides of change, and doing a marvelous job no less! ❤ Atom for putting oodles of thought and care into your trainings and for singing your voice raw at every Hootenanny. ❤ Aurora for being a glittering, badass goddess incarnate who always calls people in and plays into my silly side in a way no one else ever has. ❤ Bambi for helping us out when you were in town. I wish I could’ve spent more time with you! ❤ Barney for showering the bounty of your magical presence upon us. ❤ Bre for organizing so beautifully it gives me shivers and for giving us all a little Critter. ❤ Callaghan for hanging out with us before you even worked at Pathfinder, we’re so glad you joined us. ❤ Carlyn for being down to clown and for always laughing me to stitches. ❤ Damon for giving us your all, soaring far above and beyond the call of duty, even when your life was crazy. ❤ Dan for your ruby-ness. You keep us all on our toes! ❤ Danielle for hooking me up with City Produce, and for giving Pathfinder your all no matter how many hours you’d already worked! ❤ Dréa for sharing all of your knowledge and showing me some roads that Pathfinder can lead to. ❤ Eric for your humor, and making time to visit several times even after I was no longer working in Florida. ❤ Erika for showing me how to make imagination-heavy frontload work with the kids and for bringing obvious joy to science. ❤ Heather for helping me aboard and for sharing your wine. ❤ Ian for your delightfully groomed mustache. ❤ Javi for putting up with me and my knuckle sandwiches on many long car rides. ❤ JB for inspiring me to get sh*t done and for keeping in touch. ❤ Joe for brining “Dear Diary” into my life. ❤ John for overall eagerness to work hard, do well, and get in the field with us. ❤ Josh for being ready to laugh and to listen all the time, and for lifeguard training. Remember, safety first, sexy second! ❤ Katie for keeping in touch even as we both find ourselves in new communities and for your epic car ride conversation-starting questions. ❤ Logan for showing us all how to be kinder humans with the words we use. ❤ Margot for being the definition of kindness (like seriously, your photo is in the dictionary). I want to be like you when I grow up. ❤ Matthew for joining our team and carpooling to the northern reaches of Pinellas with me. ❤ Meghan for bringing your insane amount of skill to Pathfinder for the time you were with us, and for coaching me on VIPKid since! ❤ Morgan for opening up about your life and trusting me to drive your monster truck of a car through sandbanks. ❤ Nora for bringing your own special flavor of goofy to the Pathfinder gumbo, and for designing a seriously badass t-shirt. ❤ Sherry for hiring me! I hope all is going well in your new position! ❤ Yeni for being the chillest of all, and for hanging out and letting me crash with you a couple months ago when I came to visit. ❤ And thank you to all the other cohorts of Pathfinders who I have yet to meet! ❤

Q is for quintessential humans. I’ll admit I was a little desperate when it came to “q,” but when I looked up quintessential it seemed to fit: “representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class.” The folks I worked with at Pathfinder are definitely the most perfect example of a class of humans. I love y’all. 

Who knew that so much rope could fit in the back of a Toyota Corolla?

R is for rope. Never before in my life did I spend so much intimate time with rope. Checking it, running it, coiling it, tying it. Heck, I even practiced tying climbing knots on a piece of p-cord I had hanging in the bathroom, which I affectionately called my “poo rope.” For a full year, rope and the knots were never far from my mind. I could still probably tie a number of knots for Pathfinder purposes even though I’m a year out of practice. As they say, once a Pathfinder, always a Pathfinder. 

S is for s’mores. So. Many. S’mores. What s’more to say? 

T is for teamwork, that elusive concept that seemed to be the catch-all answer from the participants no matter what the question was. And when we got that answer, we gave it right back: “tell me a specific example where you saw teamwork in this last activity.” Pushing students to delve deeper and think more critically about their knee-jerk responses often led to some truly wonderful insights. 

U is for up for anything. Rain or shine, day or night, I was always thankful that I could count on my colleagues to do whatever needed doing. 

V is for van. Specifically, the Pathfinder van. Whether you know the sweet, golden Honda as Helga or Helena or any other name, it is undeniable that every Pathfinder has memories with the van. A few of my faves were pushing her through the mud to get to the tree at Dayspring, riding on the outside as we cruised through Cedarkirk, and sharing lots of jokes and farts in a carpool. 

W is for water. An essential of life, water features heavily in Pathfinder programs. Whether being sipped from a Nalgene or waded through on an estuary expedition or falling from the sky, water was everywhere. 

X is for ex, as in a former partner. It was a desire to move closer to him that led me to look for a job in Tampa Bay, which is how I found Pathfinder in the first place. Even though our paths have since diverged, I am thankful for the lessons and experiences from that relationship and the opportunities I had along the way. 

Y is for “Yes, and…” a zen-style summary of how Pathfinders, particularly those who are trained in improv, approach interacting with people. As the wise oracle of Wikipedia explains: “yes, and” is “a rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy that suggests that a participant should accept what another participant has stated (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”).” In practice, this can look like replacing “no, but,” even when you disagree with someone, and instead say “yes, and have you considered…” to make your point. There are countless examples of how “yes, and” can open up lines of communication and make people feel respected and heard, which can in turn make them more likely to listen. 

Z is for zip line! The zip line certainly was not everyone’s cup of tea. Anxiety-inducing for some, exhilarating for others, this was the big-ticket attraction that received the most hype and dread. I gotta say, though, that being able to zip line on the job was definitely one of the best perks for me. 

Take care, everyone.

Masked high-five through the window pane while wearing no pants in a Zoom meeting,


One thought on “Pathfinder Outdoor Education from A to Z

  1. Love this post Kelly. Your experience and knowledge learned from Pathfinder will be with you forever. Excellent.


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