Zander Breaks Barriers pt. 2

My background with outdoor adventuring roots from my early childhood - by the time I learned how to walk, I also knew how to ride a 4-wheeler all by myself. 

My family and I went camping, hunting and 4-wheeling every season of the year when I was growing up. We would go with my grandparents and stay for a few days here and there, cooking and laughing by the campfire, identifying bugs in the creeks, going fishing, finding new trails on our quads and dirt bikes. Some of my most favorite memories belong in the woods that I grew familiar with as a kid out in Southern Washington. I was never interested in hunting, so instead I learned to use slingshots and binoculars properly, start fires and cook marshmallows to perfection. I loved paving new trails and seeing deer in their natural habitat, I loved frogs and the silent rustles of trees in the forest with no power lines for miles, guessing what kind of tracks were on the ground and jumping in cold rivers on hot summer days. The outdoors were always my safe haven. 

As I got older, my family started to split their separate ways and I started exploring road trips, camping with friends and hiking. Hiking was a great escape from troubles at home, school and with myself. But I wanted more. I always wanted to see more and go further and stay longer. 

And then I met OTA. 

I started going on group hikes, indoor rock climbing and sea kayaking. I was introduced to queer inclusive, outdoor spaces where we could talk about really goofy or serious things while learning wilderness and leadership skills and having a blast navigating the water and the woods. I'm stoked for the opportunity to go to Australia this June because I'll be able to take my skills and excitement that I've built for adventuring over the course of my life and apply it to this trip, and also get to learn a variety of new things - wilderness skills, quirky facts and history of the places I'll be going, and most likely a bunch of things about myself, as well! This will be unlike anything I've ever experienced. 

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Zander Breaks Barriers

In this first installment of "Zander Breaks Barriers", we learn a little bit more about Zander and his relationship with OTA. 

How did you learn about OTA?

I learned about OTA directly from one of their outreach sessions that was hosted at a local queer youth group I used to go to in Bellevue.

What trip(s) have you done?

So far I have only done one Outdoor School with OTA, where we went on an 8-day kayaking trip through the San Juan Islands in Washington. I have done two-day trips with them, where we went indoor rock climbing, and the other time we went on a day hike.

What has been your favorite OTA moment?

I have many favorite moments with OTA. The first would be the 5th day into our kayaking trip, and we decided to stay an extra day on a particular island because we were feeling a bit tired and really liked the spot. I remember setting up my hammock and tent, we cooked this incredible meal with this weird grapefruit dessert at the end, and I watched one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen disappear past the water. My other favorite memory with OTA was at their second annual fundraiser in 2016. They asked me to speak about my experience with OTA and why more youth should get OUT with us. It was an incredible moment, to speak in front of so many people who cared about such a great and impactful organization. I got to see how much the trips and participants meant to Elyse and Kira, as they saw and listened to how much OTA means to us.

Has OTA made an impact on your life? If so, how?

A huge reason why I decided to go back to college was because of the success through trial and error, hard work and passion I got a glimpse of that my trip leaders experienced in order to make that first OTA trip possible. It was motivating, really – to see other queer people, similar to me in at least one way, who had really made a name for themselves. That was pretty radical and impactful to me. OTA has been a support system both on and off the trail. They have provided opportunities, connections and wisdom that no other organization would have ever been able to. Letters of recommendation, hand-me-down gear and cool fundraisers have enriched my knowledge of how to embrace getting dirty, but also to give back to my community, raise awareness, stay connected and be active.

Why should other young queer folks get OUT with OTA?

I think OTA is one of those once-in-life-time kind of things. There is no other known organization that does the work that they do specifically for queer young people. Not only is OTA unique, but they are a family in the outdoors, a teacher, an adventure buddy, and a [gay]teway into the outdoors.


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Q&A with OTA's Founder

It's been an interesting last few months. And what's on the horizon remains to be seen. Given the current political, cultural, economic and environmental landscape, we caught up with our Executive Director and founder to get her thoughts on what it will all mean for OTA's future.

OTA: To put it bluntly, the past few months have been a political circus. How do you think this will affect OTA in 2017?

Elyse: Admittedly, at first I was terrified about what the election results would mean for OTA. However, in the past few months I have become increasingly optimistic. No organization is successful without the support of its community, and since November the support has been pouring in from not only our city, but also regionally and nationally. While there is a lot of negativity being promoted by a certain facet of society, the generosity, compassion and love put forth by the rest will outweigh it.

OTA: Looking ahead to the rest of 2017, what are your goals for OTA?

Elyse: As always, I have many goals for OTA. Programmatically we aim to get over 60 queer young people outside for more than 8,000 hours of adventuring. Financially we want the organization to be the most financially stable it has ever been. This means our goal is to raise at least $50,000 in the next 11 months.

OTA: Wow! Those are exciting goals. How will you achieve them?

Elyse: They are exciting indeed. We will achieve through both old and new ways. The old ways include following our great mission, a lot of hard work and appreciating the small victories. The new ways include things like different fundraising strategies, expanding our Board of Directors and increasing our program partnerships.

OTA: Speaking of partnerships, what partnerships do you have planned for 2017?

Elyse: Officially, we have three partnerships for 2017. The first is our collaboration with OUT For Sustainability, a queer-focused environmental and social sustainability organization, on April 29th for an event called "Earth Gay". From 9am to 1pm we will be helping to improve and recreating in Seattle green space.  Later on in the summer we will be partnering with Northwest Youth Corps for the first ever queer youth trail crew. For five weeks in July and August eight 16 to 18 year old queer young people will help complete restoration projects on San Juan Island. The crew will not only gain skills needed to enter in to the outdoor industry, but they will also be compensated AND have the opportunity to go on a week long kayaking trip throughout the San Juan Islands. The third partnership is with the National Outdoor Leadership School and their Gateway Program. Through this program one of OTA's first ever trip participants will be participating as a student on a 30 day NOLS course. Currently he is leaning towards the Australian backpacking course. We are extremely excited to support him through this life changing opportunity. Lastly, we are always looking for ways to better connect with youth organizations and school groups.

OTA: That all sounds awesome! On another note, you were recently named as one of the outdoor industry's "Best and Brightest" by Outdoor Retailer. Congrats! I assume that was incredibly exciting.

Elyse: I am honored to be named with many other game changers in the outdoor industry. Beyond personal gratification though I am most excited about the visibility and validation it will garner for OTA. What we have been able to achieve with such limited resources and in such a short time is amazing to say the least, and I am hopeful that publicity like being named on the "Best and Brightest" list will further our ability to achieve our goals.

OTA: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. It's always great to learn more about what's going on under OTA's hood.

Elyse: Absolutely. It's always great to get the word out. 

For more information about OTA's 2017 programs, please visit the Get OUT There page and follow us on social media! 

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An Open Letter To Our Community

An open letter to our community, 

Jane Goodall once said,”it's easy to become hopeless. So people must have hope: the human brain, the resilience of nature, the energy of young people and the sort of inspiration that you see from so many hundreds of people who tackle tasks that are impossible and never give up and succeed.” 

This quote seems fitting for this trying time. Like many of you, we at OTA are frustrated, saddened and scared by the events that have unfolded over the past week. We are all of these things for our friends, our volunteers, staff and board members and most of all for our participants. 

My personal terror takes on many shapes and often results in unanswered questions that swirl around my head at every hour of the day. How will this effect our participants who are at the core of our work? Our staff and volunteers are trained to handle many emotional and physical emergencies, but in light of the horrific reports of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia, do they need to be prepared to handle something else? How will this effect the grant makers, foundations and donors we rely on?

We have shared many successes in our short two years of full operation and have much to be proud of. We have grown our participant base from two to over 40. We have increased our gear inventory from just the extras possessed between Kira and I to enough to outfit 12 on a backpacking trip. We have established relationships with outdoor education programs across the country that are ecstatic to provide a safe and inclusive “next step” for our participants, whether that be extended wilderness courses or entering in to the industry as a counselor or trip leader. 

To the best of our knowledge, we were the first organization specifically created to connect queer youth and backcountry tripping through the lens of empowerment, leadership and community. OTA also continues to be the only organization of its specific kind in the United States. Obviously, for us the best part of this work is hanging out with our amazing participants. We learn so much from them, and apparently them from us. We have participants and families who credit OTA’s programs with increased self-confidence, leadership and overall happiness. To quote one parent, "I can already see evidence that [our son] has grown more mature, and confident, from his OTA experience. And as his mom, it brings me so much joy to see him so happy and enthusiastic." 

All of these amazing facts, and yet I lay awake at night wondering what the next six to 12 months will hold, and specifically if we will be able to continue to do this work. OTA has had its success because of true grassroots support and as we transition in to year three I know our success will be marked by this fact. For the first time ever, we are participating in the #GivingTuesday campaign that follows Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. #GivingTuesday is now an international day of giving, or as well like to call it investing, that helps bring attention to the amazing work being done all over the world. 

Two weeks from today on this year's #GivingTuesday I hope you will join us. Join us through investing. Join us through spreading the word. Join us by posting an #UNSelfie. We believe firmly that in the long run our community will rise as it always has, and we’d like to believe that perhaps now we will find more allies than ever. So, we hope we will see you OUT there. 


As always, in solidarity and adventure,



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Meet OTA's Staff!

On this edition of The OTA Blog, we learn a little bit more about our co-founder, E.D. and Lead Instructor Elyse Rylander! 

Elyse poses for her friend David near the face of Columbia Glacier in the Prince William Sound. 

Elyse poses for her friend David near the face of Columbia Glacier in the Prince William Sound. 

Name: Elyse Rylander

Title: Executive Director and Lead Instructor

Where did you grow up? Southern Wisconsin

Where do you call home? Excellent question that at this time I do not possess an answer for...

Did you go to college? Yes. I did my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin (Go Bucky!) and graduate work at Prescott College.

How long have you been working as an outdoor professional? I started as a sort of "instructor in training" at a canoe and kayak shop in Madison when I was 16. So, this summer was something like my 11th season working with people outside.

Why do you like leading people on trips? At first because I thought it would make me super cool. But, as I have moved along in my career it has very much become about sharing my love for the outdoors with others, especially others who maybe have not had the same privileges I have. Now, OTA represents the perfect mix of my love for the outdoors and showing younger folks how 1) awesome nature is and 2) awesome they are.

Tell us about a memorable moment outside for you. My first season guiding sea kayaking trips in Alaska I led a 3 day long trip for a family from the Netherlands. I had no idea where I was going (as I had missed the training trip for my college graduation). The first day of the trip was great. But we woke up the second day to discover an ice flow from the Columbia Glacier was QUICKLY approaching our beach, and with no end in sight. I packed up our boats as fast as I could and we launched in the last possible second to avoid the ice. Then we got slammed in the face with 3 foot seas and rain for 3 hours as we crossed from the island to the mainland. Definitely one of the most emotionally and physically taxing days as a guide I've ever had, but it's been a great framework to operate from since!

Why do you like working for OTA? I like working for OTA for more reasons than I can describe. It has been my life's motivation for the last 5 years, and the feelings I get when I can lead a trip with queer young folks are just the most amazing I've ever experienced in my life. OTA has absolutely changed my life, and I hope it can be a positive fierce force for others as well.

Anything else? If anyone happens to know Ellen DeGeneres, my life would be complete if OTA was featured on her show... 

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