Kings Beach’s Roxana Cabrera recently graduated from college and is now applying for medical school. Not too many years ago she was a shy student at North Tahoe High School. What brought about the change?

Adventure Risk Challenge helped me break out of my shell, helped me become more independent and really appreciate what I had,” says Cabrera.

Adventure Risk Challenge started as a graduate school project for Katie Zanto who wanted to bring her experience of taking kids into the wilderness with Outward Bound to the English-learning community in the Tahoe region. She developed a summer program with teenagers in which they would spend 40 days backpacking in the wilderness focusing on nature, writing and building self-esteem.

Since 2013, the program has been led by executive director Sarah Ottley. Today, there are ARC programs in place in both Lake Tahoe and Yosemite and the program has expanded to improving academic skills and inspiring confidence to succeed in high school, in college and in life.

“Ultimately we hope that our participants and alumni can articulate their own goals and follow a path to accomplish those goals.” – Sarah Ottley

“One of the most important purposes of ARC is to close the achievement gap, give low-income and immigrant students just as good a chance as someone who has adult allies at every level of life,” says Ottley. “Ultimately we hope that our participants and alumni can articulate their own goals and follow a path to accomplish those goals. Every kid doesn’t need to go to a four-year university, but we want them to have an idea what they do want to do with their life.”

“[ARC] was more than an outdoor literacy program to me, they were a family. They have been part of my life since high school, throughout college and now as a working professional,” says NTHS student Yami Gutierrez.

Ottley grew up in Michigan with three brothers. They did a lot of outdoors activities partly because that is what the family could afford.

“We cross-country skied a lot because there were no fees to use the trails and we could pass skis down from kid to kid,” she says.

She went to Wheaton College in Illinois majoring in music. When she graduated, she decided she wanted to work outdoors.

“My first summer in college, I worked in the Grand Canyon, then fell head over heels in love with Yosemite on a quick summer trip. I’d never been any place like the Sierra Nevada — the granite, the water and trees. I figured I had to work here,” she says.

Ottley worked in outdoor education for seven years, including five years for the Yosemite Institute before falling in love with ARC.

“I have witnessed transformations that have lasted. I have heard stories and been a part of people’s lives that have totally changed. It ripples out to their families and their friends. I believe and love what we do. It is the individual human lives that have changed with ARC,” Ottley says.

“Sarah is an incredible asset to the ARC program,” Zanto says. “She is inclusive, adaptive, effective and able to build bridges across communities to best serve our youth. As the founder, I had hoped for a visionary leader like Sarah to grow our programming and I couldn’t be more impressed with all that she brings.”

Adventure Risk Challenge’s Wilderness Course is a 24- to 40-day summer course that involves leadership, team building, writing and public speaking. It also involves academics, reading and environmental science designed to give students a powerful feeling of accomplishment.

“It totally changes the lives of the participants. There are no cell phones, no correspondence except writing letters, no texts,” said Ottley.

ARC also offers a weekend retreat for those who can’t commit to the full summer course, and a mentoring program for students who have completed the wilderness course.

Supporters of Adventure Risk Challenge can see the impact it has on the students by attending a Voices of Youth poetry presentation held each summer. Here the students overcome their fear of speaking in public. The event is a happy, tear jerker and a fundraiser for the organization.

For more information, to help or donate, visit arcprogram.org.

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Tim Hauserman
Tim Hauserman wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, as well as “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and the children’s book “Gertrude’s Tahoe Adventures in Time.” Most of the year he writes on a variety of topics, but you will find him in the winter teaching cross-country skiing and running the Strider Gliders program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. He has lived in Tahoe since he was a wee lad and loves to be outdoors road and mountain biking, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking and cross-country skiing.