A new program offered out of SelfDesign High takes its name and a bit of inspiration from a man with a passion for the environment.
WildEarth Outdoor Program is an adventure-based education that offers students ages 16 to 20 a gateway to a career in the growing ecotourism industry. At its heart is Blue Netherclift, a UK native whose environmentalism led him to the Kootenays.
SelfDesign mentor Ray Stothers is philosophical about Netherclift’s presence at the school. He says “when you are standing next to Blue, you are standing next to a forested mountain that breathes.”
Adding Netherclift to the list of mentors at the school only makes sense because it allows everyone involved to “further their passions,” Stothers says.
Netherclift’s ecological enthusiasm began in his native United Kingdom. While a university student, he became an activist for the environment but he also found that turning others on to the wonders of the outdoor world was another way to encourage appreciation. Today, he has over 10 years experience in adventure tourism including leading treks to Tanzania and South Africa.
Netherclift has been in Canada since 2009, originally coming to Nelson for skiing —“That’s totally my hook,” he says.
An activist with GreenPeace, he spent time on BC’s coast, advocating for Clayoquot Sound and eventually started running an adventure tourism company in Bella Coola called Wild Earth Adventures offering small group wilderness holidays since 2005.
“More and more I just fell in love with Canada,” he says.
In the last year, things have changed for the environmentalist. He got married, has a new baby and has “been missing working with youth,” he says, making this the perfect time to return to education — specifically SelfDesign whose high school program is based on “life is learning.”
Their learning approach is inquiry based and courses are designed to cultivate critical thinking, self and social awareness, wellness and engagement in collaborative, creative problem solving. Mentors who nurture their ideas, perspectives, and questions guide learners. This type of learning would have served Netherclift well. He says he never did well in school.
“In fact, I was terrible at school. My attendance was down. I didn’t get good grades. I wasn’t very inspired,” he says.
“I started learning about Self Design and it seemed to be a good fit for me… This is something I could have done with back then. These guys are so lucky — one, they grow up in the Kootenays and two, they have people who care, who want to keep up with them and develop their interests.”
Participants in WildEarth, a full-time experiential learning program, will develop youth leadership, entrepreneurial and teamwork skills that include trip planning, risk assessment, environmental stewardship, guiding, first aid, avalanche, canoeing, hiking certification, interpersonal communication skills and group facilitation while making connections to entrepreneurialism, responsible travel and other themes.
“It brings a lot for those who want to challenge themselves in the outdoors,” says Netherclift. “As an environmentalist it’s great to see that you are having some sort of impact on the youth. You get that from adventure tourism, for sure, but it’s just not the same. For these guys to go on to become leaders themselves and to promote the environment and all these life skills is really valuable. I feel I am most useful in this role.”
Working with the students has been “an interesting shift for me,” he adds. “It’s really different from working with adults from Europe who are paying lots of money just to be guided. This is the whole other side, about the experience of learning. I get a real kick out of… seeing them gradually build their skills and confidence so they reach the place where you can step back.”
SelfDesign’s David Russell-Loewen took students on a couple trips last year. The 2013 grad class met Netherclift when they made their year-end trip to Bella Coola. The fellow mentor says sharing stories upon return had everyone wanting a chance to do more.
SelfDesign needed someone to step in and take the reigns to continue this vein of learning.
“These trips are so character building for them but also as a mentor it’s really rewarding to see what comes from those moments and how much passion arises from them experiencing the outdoors,” says Russell-Loewen.