In the summer of 2001, Element Skateboards founder Johnny Schillereff stumbled on a new addition to a YMCA skate camp in Northern California: a nature survival-skills program. Over the course of one week on remote Sequoia Lake, instructors Todd Larson and Mike Kershnar brought confidence-building survival strategies to the urban attitudes of the kids.
Moved by this experience, Schillereff snagged Larson as soon as he graduated from UC Santa Cruz. “Before we met Johnny and Element,” a grateful Larson explains, “we were just a couple of guys doing this program on our own. But Johnny saw the reaction of the kids—how they were really learning about nature—and that’s Element’s whole vibe.”
Within two years, Elemental Awareness, a nonprofit organization, was launched—and the program has flourished. They take 15 kids to camp—many of whom have never experienced the great outdoors before—and teach them the importance of shelter, fire, water, and food. “A lot of them are really, really scared,” Larson says. “Especially when it gets dark—they’ve never seen so many stars in the sky. They’ve never seen a wild animal. They’ve never seen a tree that wasn’t surrounded by concrete.” And because most kids, especially those who dare the air on a half-pipe, might not be as interested in recycling as they are in starting fires, they take nature on with a hardcore appreciation of the elements.
While surviving in the wilderness is important, it’s not the ultimate goal: “Hopefully, when they go back to the city and someone talks about being green, or doing things in an environmentally sustainable way, they will know what path to choose because they’ve had this close connection to nature.”
To reach as many deserving kids as possible, Elemental Awareness runs skateboarding and essay-writing contests, and even a scholarship program. Though there’s only one camp—for the time being—enthusiastic kids come from all over the world.