Endlessly offering gifts for the mind, body and spirit, the great outdoors lives up to its name. It’s no wonder so many of us are passionate about spending time there. And a rare few have found a way to build purpose into that passion. Here are six local leaders who have made it their work or calling to share the hope, healing and history of the great outdoors with others.
Yoga Buzz: Stretching the Reach of Wellness
Having felt its benefits firsthand, yoga teacher Elle Potter made it her mission to make the empowering practice more accessible to St. Louisans.
“The message of yoga is that we’re all connected. I wanted to build community through yoga,” said Potter, who founded the nonprofit Yoga Buzz to do just that. “We’re making yoga accessible by taking it out of the studio into non-traditional spaces.”
Those spaces range from breweries to Bissinger’s caramel room — and, of course, the great outdoors. Along with unique pop-up yoga fundraisers, Yoga Buzz hosts free community classes that include weekly sun salutations at Keiner Plaza. Asanas and apple-picking go hand in hand at a monthly class at Eckert’s Farm. The lush Living Yoga Studio at Earth Dance Farms in Ferguson allows students to strike a pose and sink their toes into beds of wild strawberries, clover and chamomile.
“It’s nice to be outside and feel the ground beneath your feet, and try tree pose while looking at an actual tree,” said Potter. “It’s a really nourishing, organic experience.”
Yoga Buzz has introduced more than 1,000 first-timers to yoga and certified more than 100 new teachers to help reach diverse populations, including veterans, the developmentally disabled and people of color.
“Movement, mindfulness and breath are proven tools for increasing self-regulation and well-being,” said Potter. “People are better equipped to support others when they know how to take care of themselves first.”
Gateway to the Great Outdoors: Nurturing Through Nature
Inspired by summers spent cutting through Canada’s pristine lakes in a canoe, Chicago native Nadav Sprague shares his love for nature with city kids through Gateway to the Great Outdoors. The nonprofit provides environmental education and outdoor adventures to underserved middle school students in St. Louis and other urban areas.
“Most of these kids have never left their little nook of the city. Many have never seen a lake or a forest,” said Sprague. “We expose them to things they learn about in school but are often not able to conceptualize.”
Weekly in-class teaching and tutoring reinforce science lessons, while nature-themed outings bring classroom learning to life. Students might learn about the water cycle in class and then experience it with a canoe trip down the Mississippi River. Along the way, they begin to care deeply about the environment.
“The kids learn to become stewards of the environment,” said Sprague. “A lot of them begin to actively pick up litter on hikes and back in the city as well.”
For some, Gateway to the Great Outdoors offers a touchstone to a lost childhood.
In the words of a sixth grade girl who takes care of younger siblings: “Gateway to the Great Outdoors is the only time I can be a kid again.”
Peers Store: Preserving Our Past
Cyclists on the Katy Trail can pedal their way into the past, thanks to a unique piece of Americana: Peers Store in Marthasville, Missouri.
Built in 1896, the general store sprouted up alongside the Katy Railroad, becoming a center for community and commerce for more than 120 years. In 2014, facing demolition, the store was saved by conservation-minded couple Dan and Connie Burkhardt. Through their efforts, the iconic building claimed a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
Both a gallery and a gathering place, Peers Store features inspiring artwork by local artists Bryan Haynes and Curt Dennison, along with other locally inspired merchandise. After browsing for a bit, you can sit on the front porch and savor some ice cream and live bluegrass music.
“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, but some people are interested in art, music and history,” said Dan Burkhardt. “We do all those things at Peers Store to get people interested in conservation.”
As founders of the Katy Land Trust, the Burkhardts have devoted themselves to conserving Missouri culture and countryside for future generations.
“No other major metro area has something like the Katy Trail in its backyard. It’s quite remarkable,” said Burkhardt. “Peers Store makes the Katy Trail, and St. Louis, even more interesting.”
The store is open every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., May through October.
Sherwood Forest: Roots that Last a Lifetime
Blending traditional summer camp and outdoor education through the school year, Sherwood Forest nurtures underprivileged children through nature.
“Sherwood Forest takes kids growing up in difficult situations and teaches them that the natural environment is their true first home,” said Executive Director Mary Rogers, who learned that lesson well. “I’m a product of Sherwood Forest. I came to camp in 1967, and I fell in love with it hook, line and sinker.”
As have countless campers since Sherwood Forest was founded in 1937. Every summer, third through ninth graders attend a four-week residential camp near Lesterville, Missouri. There, they canoe, hike, cook — and see stars they could never see from the city. Those same children take part in follow-up activities throughout the school year and receive support even after they age out of the camper program.
From navigating trails to building fires, “immersion in the natural environment develops a lot of hard skills,” said Rogers. Even more important, “when children spend time in nature, they are more calm and there is less interpersonal conflict. We are hard-wired to connect with nature.”
Retirement is now in sight, but Rogers has no plans to hang up her hiking boots. As she knows firsthand: “When we introduce kids to the outdoors, that connection lasts a lifetime.”
Four Legged Running: Racing for Rescues
While some run for fun, Angela Tiedemann loves to run for a reason.
“I always looked for races that do fundraising. It helped my motivation,” said Tiedemann, an avid, all-weather runner since 2010. After participating in a virtual race — where the participant decides time, place, distance and pace — she was inspired to get people moving for a cause with paws.
“Virtual races are a good way to raise funds because anyone from anywhere can support any cause. I started thinking about what I could do for a cause close to my heart,” said Tiedemann, who went on to found Four Legged Running in 2015.
Every month, the nonprofit hosts a virtual race to benefit a different animal shelter, some as far away as New York and Arizona.
In 2017, Four Legged Running also hosted its first real road race, a half-marathon and 5k in Mascoutah, Illinois. The inaugural event raised $4,000 for 11 different rescues. Adding to Tiedemann’s delight, a rescue dog named Clarissa found her forever family at the event.
“I’ve always loved animals, and I love inspiring people to get out and enjoy the weather or outrun a bad day,” said Tiedemann, who holds a master’s degree in exercise science. “It feels good to use my knowledge to help animals and motivate people.”
Guided Path Adventures: Pedaling with Purpose
After serving in the Air Force, Caleb Brackett struggled to find his place in the world.
“I was lost and scared. I didn’t know where I belonged,” he recalled. “I began doing trail rides, and mountain biking changed my life. I saw how it brought a community together, and my dream was to give that back.”
In 2017, Brackett launched Guided Path Adventures (GPA), a nonprofit that aims to get people — of every age and ability — outside.
“We provide guided outdoor enrichment programs to hydrate the thirst for adventure,” said Brackett, a certified mountain biking instructor with a background in exercise science. “Bikes are a great connecting point between all of us.”
While mountain biking is the group’s specialty, GPA also offers camping, climbing, canoeing, trail running, adventure racing — even dog-friendly hikes.
When not hosting events at local parks and festivals, the nonprofit takes its mobile mountain biking obstacle course to schools throughout St. Louis. With challenges like a teeter-totter and a balance beam (called a “skinny” in rider parlance), students must pedal past their comfort zone.
“The experience builds trust, courage and confidence,” said Brackett. “Every kid leaves with a smile and a huge sense of fulfillment. They feel like rock stars after completing our course.”
Having found his own freedom and purpose in the great outdoors, Brackett provides others a much-needed link to nature.
“Our lives today are filled with chatter and noise. Being outdoors takes us back to our roots,” he said. “When you’re outdoors, you’re part of something bigger than yourself. It makes you feel connected and free.”
Author: Celeste Huttes is a freelance writer based in central Illinois. She enjoys the local walking trails and park almost as much as her dog, Zoey.