Through Explore Austin, Ann Jerome uses wilderness adventures to empower and mentor girls.
By Ann Jerome, Picture courtesy of Breakaway PR
I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, physical or otherwise. Growing up in New Orleans as the daughter of a single mom who worked for Delta Air Lines, I learned the value of travel and adventure at an early age. I also learned that with hard work and big dreams, I could accomplish anything. I was encouraged to set my career ambitions high in a way that may have seemed elusive to others. And it was made very clear that a quality education was the first step in achieving these goals. (Thanks, Mom!)
It surprises some who know me, but I’m a first-generation college student and graduate on both sides of my family. By age 19, I knew my vocation was to be helpful to people and that higher education was key to achieving this mission. By 1990, I had earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Memphis. From there, I set off to make a positive impact in the nonprofit sector, quickly earning leadership roles at a range of organizations, such as the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Kansas City, Mo., and in Austin, as well as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society South Central Texas and most recently, as executive director of the American Heart Association in Austin.
Last year, I had the opportunity to take on a new professional leadership challenge. I knew it would be the most personal to date, as it involves working with youth, mentorship and what has been a lifelong passion for me, adventure. Since October 2017, I have served as CEO of Explore Austin, a long-term youth-development organization that uses mentoring, nature and outdoor adventures to transform the lives of students living in low-income communities by helping them achieve their full potential.
At Explore Austin, “explorers” are recruited each spring from partner schools, including KIPP Austin, Austin Achieve, Wayside and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy. The students form teams of 15 explorers, divided by gender, and are matched with five volunteer mentors committed to providing teams with guidance and mentorship for the duration of the six-year program.
The explorers, mentors and staff embark on a journey of developing young adults into action-oriented, courageous and excellent teammates and strong communicators. It’s what we call ACES, the acronym for the curriculum created by Explore Austin. The students learn and use many skills and educational aspects that positively impact their school experience, like science, environmental topics, navigation, teamwork, leadership and perseverance. We are taking the pillars of STEM learning to the great outdoors, not unlike scientific giants of old like Ben Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton and Maria Mitchell.
During the most recent academic year, we worked with more than 280 explorers. All were engaged in monthly Saturday Challenges, one-day adventures in rock climbing, mountain biking, caving, canoeing and backpacking taking place in and near Austin. These skills are practiced during the school year and put into action during annual summer wilderness trips that take the explorers on outdoor adventures in six states. Most of our explorers never left the Austin area or the state of Texas prior to their involvement with Explore Austin.
I’ve experienced such tremendous joy through this mission in action. As I write this essay, I am still on a high since returning from my first wilderness trip last week. We canoed down 50 miles of the Buffalo River in Arkansas. It was hard, challenging and wonderful to be a part of this adventure with the ninth-grade girls, their mentors and our trip leaders. There’s no better feeling than helping youth who face significant obstacles to see the world and all its possibilities, and to help them grow the confidence and grit needed to achieve their goals. As one former explorer said of the program, “Ever since then, no challenge has seemed insurmountable because I feel as if I can accomplish anything set in my path.”
Learn more about Explore Austin at exploreaustin.org