For the past three summers, Nicole Hinebaugh has led a group of children from Asheville’s public housing neighborhoods down the hiking trails of Western North Carolina. This year, she needs extra help from volunteers to keep the program — the Trailblazers Outdoor Adventure Club — going strong.
Most of these children have never seen the luscious greenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Hinebaugh cites this as one of the main reasons why local nonprofit Women’s Wellbeing and Development Foundation founded Trailblazers. “Honestly, we realized that a lot of the children didn’t know about these any of these places,” Hinebaugh explains.
“And not just the children,” she continues. “Adults that have grown up here — natives to this area — haven’t been to these places because … first of all, you have to know that they exist. Somebody has to show you they’re there,” she says. “But also you have to be able to have access to private transportation to get there. You just have to. So if you don’t, it’s like this whole other world.”
The eight-week program — in which about two dozen kids take hikes and excursions to local farms (and overnight camping at the end of the season) — starts in late June, but this year, Hinebaugh notes a big change.
“The earlier that I can start getting people’s awareness up about it the better because, well, I am six months pregnant,” she says. “Come trailblazers time, I’m going to be going out to have my baby. Ordinarily … I lead almost all the hikes myself and then rely on a lot of volunteers to help fill in for all the adults so we have a good ratio. And I can’t do that this year. So what I need is support.”
And for her volunteers, Hinebaugh asks for adults with creative ideas. “I would like … to invite folks to come in and participate more in planning the activities once we get out there. There are some things we do like plant identification and tree identification,” she says. “But I think it would be really fun if we had, like, scavenger hunts or some things like that.
“I do like to keep it as loosely structured as possible so that the children have time to get out there and build their own relationships with nature — go explore, go creek-walk (within eyesight of an adult), play in the waterfall, learn how to swim, climb on the rocks, sunbathe on the rocks — whatever it is that you’re doing,” Hinebaugh continues.
“Without having specific programming every minute of the day, it gives them the opportunity to really explore and relax and just enjoy, as opposed to making it like school in the woods.”
The idea is to give participating kids time to splash and play on the rocks and in the cool waters for the first time and enjoy their summers out of the city by learning to swim and bonding with nature.
The summer program starts with two endurance hikes — one long hike down Laurel River and one uphill hike up to Sam Knob in Black Balsam, “just to see where everybody is,” says Hinebaugh.
And because so many of the hikes lead the children and volunteers to natural swimming holes, some being fed by rushing waterfalls and mossy mountain streams, Hinebaugh designed the program to include swimming lessons, which conclude at the end of the summer with a pool party that lets the children demonstrate what they’ve learned.
“We want to test everyone’s swimming ability,” she says. “We administer four tests: on top of the water distance, underwater distance, floating on your back and treading water. To be honest, most [participating] children cannot tread water at all — they haven’t ever tried. So their swimming ability varies all over the place.”
But, Hinebaugh says, “every time we go out to the waterfalls or we go to the pool, we’ll work with the kids individually and in a group. It’s not so serious that it’s not fun. We’ll just teach them the technique. … It’s not super-formal because they’re in water almost every day. They pick it up.”
The program runs on a budget of $3,000, which covers lunches and snacks for the kids, four days a week for two four-week sessions, as well as transportation costs to make the trips into the mountains. Each hike requires at least two volunteers, with one paid staff member to lead.
At the end of the summer, the children are led on a backpacking trip to experience WNC overnight — the fireflies, the campfires, the s’mores and the noises of nocturnal critters.
“We take the top 10 or 12 hikers for the year,” Hinebaugh says. “There are children that show up every single day, and they just hike their little hearts out. And then there are some children that show up more sporadically — when they feel like it or when they have time. Because we can’t take 24 children camping, we choose the ones that have the best participation — and, honestly, the best behavior, because we want that to be an incentive too.
“Last year it poured on us the whole time, and it was still so much fun.”
Hinebaugh and the foundation are dedicated to making lasting memories for these children, she says — swim lessons, hikes, farm visits collecting honey and picking berries, camping trips and pool parties. But their summer memories don’t have to fade with time, she says. “We take lots of pictures while we’re out of the children playing and hiking and camping. And at the end of the year, we have materials and supplies donated to have a scrapbooking party so that the kids can come and make their own scrapbook so they have a keepsake of their summer.
“They love it so much,” Hinebaugh says. “Sometimes [out on the trails] they’re like, ‘Oh I’m bored,’ and I’ll say, ‘Really? Would you rather be bored here swimming and playing and splashing or be bored back at Hillcrest?’”
During the summer, Hinebaugh mentions, some public-housing units are “hot. They don’t have ceiling fans. They don’t have AC. And it’s on a hill — all the bedrooms are upstairs. It’s just hot in the summer — people are getting grumpy, there’s a little bit of an escalation of fights. People are feeling just agitated and uncomfortable.”
“When we take these kids away from that environment for the hottest part of the day,” she continues, “sometimes where we go the temperature difference is 20 degrees, and so they come back and they’re all refreshed. They got to chill in the water. They had their adventure. They’re a little worn out because they got some good exercise. They got to swim. They’re feeling pretty good.
“They come back into their community, and it’s like a breath of fresh air. What they bring with them — that spirit and that energy that they bring with them back into the community has a ripple effect.”
Get involved: To volunteer or learn more about the Trailblazers Outdoor Adventure Club, email Hinebaugh at email@example.com, call 255-8777 or visit wwd-f.org/volunteer. To donate to the program, visit wwd-f.org/donate.