Being a foster child comes with many challenges, and lacking a place to truly call home is one of them. Yet, there’s a bigger home we all can claim as our own no matter what our background is… Mother Nature. That’s where Foster the Earth steps in — a non-profit organization that recognizes the healing power of nature, and is dedicated to helping vulnerable children and young adults in the foster care system through exposure to the great outdoors.
Founded in San Diego by Erin McBride and Sarah Hughen — both mothers and nature-lovers — Foster the Earth is a 7-month program starting in March each year. Individuals involved in the program scale up from day hikes once a month to a final, week-long backpacking trip.
We sat down with Sarah and Erin to find out more about this incredible organization, why they feel connecting with nature is so important, and the impact the program is having on its participants.
Where did the idea for Foster the Earth come from in the first place?
(Erin) I had an epiphany when I was on a backpacking trip in the Sierra in 2011 after losing my brother. I thought if I could create a program for foster youth to come out to these same mountains, it could help heal their wounded hearts. My Grandpa Buck and Grandma Esme were foster parents to over 100 foster kids growing up so I have always had a soft spot in my heart for them.
What made you both so well positioned to run this?
We are both avid backpackers with a passion for the wilderness. After years of being privileged enough to be able to go on numerous expeditions, it was time to share the wilderness with more people who could benefit from all that nature offers.
What kind of transformation do you see amongst the participants?
We are a very unique program because we are 7 months long.
Each month we meet up for monthly hikes, and then those who show commitment can earn a spot on the weeklong trip to summit Mt. Whitney. In the beginning, the hikers are hesitant. They like the idea of hiking, but it’s not always easy. As we spend more time creating bonds, they start to believe in themselves, and have a new found sense of belonging. They may not have had many things they could count on in their lives, so we create a space where they can show up and know we will be there, hiking the same trail with them. Once we are out on the trail, we are all equals. The wilderness doesn’t know what hardships might have come before. The trees don’t know that you were previously homeless or bounced from foster home to foster home. On the trail, we are all the same! When you have just what you need to survive on your back, and can hike to the tallest summit in the lower 48, you soon realize you can conquer any of life’s challenges. Your own two feet got you there. This confidence stays with you forever.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced during the program?
Starting and running a non-profit is no easy feat. We are a volunteer run organization and started this organization with the support of the community and mentors. We spent about 2 years in the development stage acquiring insurance and raising funding. It was important to us to offer this program at no cost to the participants. One of the barriers to accessing the outdoors is the gear needed. We were lucky enough to have a few companies believe in our mission and give us gear. It continues to be difficult to raise enough funding to keep this a no-cost program but we aren’t going to stop what we are doing –we will always figure out a way!
How do you pack for a week-long camping expedition?
First we account for the essentials such as warm base-layers, solid socks, supportive boots, insulated layers and rain gear. Then the real gear comes in to play. We use lightweight 3 season tents, and 10 degree down sleeping bags and solid 65L packs. One great way we trim down on weight is by making tent groups. Three people will team up and be a ‘tent’ group.
Is packing enough food a challenge?
Spending extended time in the backcountry can be a challenge with weight in your pack. We go 7 days, 48 miles, and pack everything we eat on our backs! When you break it down to calorie intake and weight, every ounce counts. We often start hiking before the sun rises and no one feels like cooking a big breakfast or eating boring bars every day…This last trip we packed LonoLife bone broth packets that dissolve easily in hot water and deliver a whopping 10 grams of protein. It was the perfect way to wake up to something warm and get fueled enough to put a few miles behind us.
Have you ever brought your own children along on one of the expeditions?
We both backpack with our families and have taken our kids on their own backpacking trips every since they were little. But these weeklong expeditions are for the Foster the Earth participants. The bonds we grow during the 7 months are special and fragile and we take great care to make sure every hiker has a successful trip.
What’s next for Foster the Earth?
We’re entering our 3rd year and expanding to share this opportunity with more regions both nationally and internationally! There is a new Chapter starting in Bozeman, Montana. It will be our pilot year feeling out how it feels to expand. If that Chapter is successful, and we can maintain the quality of the impact we are hoping for, then the sky’s our limit. A new Chapter is also in the works in Chile. Ideally, we would love to see this program grow to a Chapter in every state if funds allow.