Six Whitties who will change the world – Elena Gustafson

helenjenne

20091002-03-profiles-webWhen senior Elena Gustafson was a kid, her parents divided her allowance into three parts: spending money, college savings and a donation for a good cause.

“It was really exciting,” Gustafson said, to save up money for six months to give to a good cause. “[Helping others] was instilled in me early,” she said. ¬†

For four summers, starting when she was 16, Gustafson worked on the Northern Lakes Girl Scout Canoe Base in Minnesota, taking girls ranging in age from 12 to 15 on three, five, seven, or ten-day trips. “It was the most defining experience of my life,” she said.

Gustafson worked at the canoe base the summer before she came to Whitman, so when she came to Whitman and found out there wasn’t a similar volunteer program: one that brought outdoor experiences and education to youth: she decided to start one.

The Youth Adventure Program, which Gustafson started the spring semester of her freshman year, focuses on environmental education for at-risk and underprivileged youth in Walla Walla by getting those kids to kayak, rock climb, hike and partake in other outdoors activities.

When Gustafson worked in New Mexico, she took a group of sixth graders from Albuquerque to a forest alongside the Rio Grande, so that the kids could see the river. Some of the sixth graders, she said, were “tough boys,” but did not want to go on a dirt path through the woods because they thought there would be bears, similar to what they saw in movies. This is the type of disconnect from the environment that she is working to get rid. There are children in Walla Walla, she said, “who have never seen a tree so big they can’t put their arms around it.”

Gustafson says that on some of the trips, even though they tend to be short, she sees sulky middle schoolers slowly start asking questions and start getting excited about nature. The Youth Adventure Program has also benefited Whitman students, by providing the opportunity to lead an outdoor trip to students who may be more comfortable leading kids than leading their peers.

Gustafson attributes the success of the Youth Adventure Program to student support. This year, Gustafson has trained 54 new leaders. She says that even though the Youth Adventure Program is running many more programs than it used to, there is even more need. This year, Gustafson said that she is going to try to get the Youth Adventure Program to a stable place, so that it will continue after she graduates.

After she graduates, Gustafson, who is also a two-time Udall scholar and has donated her time to many other organizations, including the Campus Climate Challenge, plans to go back to the canoe base for a summer, and after that, will continue working on enviornmental education.

“What is really neat to me about Elena is that she cares so much about environmental education that I know it’s going to be what she does,” said Lina Menard, Community Service Coordinator. Menard has worked with ¬†Gustafson ¬†closely in the past three years.

“I’ve discovered that this is my passion,” Gustafson said, and added that she was lucky to have found an outlet for this at Whitman. Also, she laughed, “I’ve found out way more about insurance (because of the Youth Adventure Program) than I ever wanted to know.”