By Erin Porteous, CEO

At a young age, I grew a deep fondness for the natural landscape in Colorado; the fresh air, exploring the Rocky Mountains and playing with mother nature’s tools. I could build the ultimate fort with just dirt, leaves and branches. I could happily hike and bike and splash through rivers and streams. Truly, if the sun was shining, I could explore and adventure endlessly. But come nighttime, when the sun dwindled behind the peaks, my adventurous mind would get the best of me. That quintessential Colorado activity – camping out, sleeping under the stars – was completely petrifying for me. The rustle and shake of forest animals sent shivers down my spine as I pictured them right outside my tent, plotting to find a way in. I could hardly sleep with the big imaginative unknown outside and my small, racing mind, completely panicked in the incubator of my sleeping bag. A few of those awful, sleepless nights were enough for me. So I just avoided camping at all costs.  

By Erin Porteous, CEO

At a young age, I grew a deep fondness for the natural landscape in Colorado; the fresh air, exploring the Rocky Mountains and playing with mother nature’s tools. I could build the ultimate fort with just dirt, leaves and branches. I could happily hike and bike and splash through rivers and streams. Truly, if the sun was shining, I could explore and adventure endlessly. But come nighttime, when the sun dwindled behind the peaks, my adventurous mind would get the best of me. That quintessential Colorado activity – camping out, sleeping under the stars – was completely petrifying for me. The rustle and shake of forest animals sent shivers down my spine as I pictured them right outside my tent, plotting to find a way in. I could hardly sleep with the big imaginative unknown outside and my small, racing mind, completely panicked in the incubator of my sleeping bag. A few of those awful, sleepless nights were enough for me. So I just avoided camping at all costs.  

Then I skipped to adulthood, when opting in and out of things because they scare me is really no longer a viable option – especially as a parent. It’s now my job to be brave, to model determination and grit, and to use logic over fear. It’s my job to encourage my daughter especially when she is scared, but also to teach her which things are really, truly scary. This balancing act is particularly hard because I can think of nothing more important to me than her safety and security. So I do my best to be her guide and her chief encourager, and be the one to dust off scraped knees when she tries and she falls. As I’m sure many of you remember from one of our favorite childhood movies, Yoda would tell us: “There is no try, only do or do not.” So, most of the time, I encourage her to “do.” 

Walk in the doors of any of our Clubs on a given afternoon, and you will notice a LOT of “doing.” An eight-year-old is bringing a canvas to life with bright purples and greens, with our Art Director offering tips and high-fives. Members of our teen leadership group, the Keystone Club, are practicing public speaking, the girls giggling and beginning again when they slip up. On the rock wall, a 12-year-old boy is fitting his fingers into hand holds, with nervous glances down to the staff member belaying expertly from below. And in the STEM lab, a shy young man builds a robot with the focus and confidence you would expect from a NASA launch. This is not a place of no fear at all, but it is a place where our Club kids can safely face their fears. 

We know that overcoming fears or anxieties is an essential part of what it means to grow up. Understanding our emotions and how to identify and communicate them is a core component of social-emotional learning. I’ll be honest – inside my tent in the middle of the Colorado wilderness, I had no idea how to tell my mom why it was so terrifying. I just shut down and pulled my sleeping bag over my head. At Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, we offer opportunities left and right for our Club members to try new things, to face their fears, and overcome them. We know that most of what kids are afraid of is the unknown, and so by providing exposure and opportunity to try things they’ve never done before, in a safe place with trusted adults, they can grow up into self-assured, confident peopleBy doing something they never thought possible, their worlds open up to possibilities they never even dared to imagine until then. 

Outside the doors of the Clubs, many of our Club kids face fears that are decidedly more serious. From the all too common occurrences of school violence and bullying, to the stark realities of trauma and food insecurity, our Club members face things that we know children should never have to grapple with. In Colorado, 20.1% of all children ages 0-17 experience adverse childhood experiencesand this is why we have recently expanded our behavioral health programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver Two of our Clubs now have full-time social workers who offer seamless mental health services for our Club kids and their families, and we are continuing our organization-wide focus on developing social-emotional health for both our Club members and our staff.  

Inside the Clubs, we provide a soft landing for kids when they take risks and leap into the unknownand a safe environment with trusted adults to counsel and support them when they need it. What once was a too-high rock wall is now an old friend. Where a stutter used to be is now a confident voice, without even a hint of a waverA difficult conversation is met with expert compassion, understanding and empathy. And an intimidating blank canvas is now a vibrant bunch of purple columbines.  

As for me? Nighttime became my biggest opportunity for learning the virtues of patience, determination and attempting to harness my imagination. Truthfully, I’m still not a very happy camper. But what I’ve come to realize is that, in many ways, my young restless mind propelled me forward throughout my adolescent and adult life. Learning how to channel curiosity and a healthy amount of fear into focused effort helped me work hard at a job I loved – and then pick up a second job so I could afford my own apartment. Patience and determination helped me run my first marathon, and others after. So, decades after that first overnight camping trip, I now know how to look my fears in the face and persevere through them – a lesson that has been life changing for meand is for our Club kids, too.