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Better Together

Working with community partners to improve health.

Idaho BaseCamp works alongside St. Luke’s to create resilient, confident young people

By Alexis Bennett, News and Community
March 26, 2024

New and borrowed sleeping bags will soon be stuffed into packs and parents will hide their tears and sighs of relief as their fifth-grade students prepare to head out to the Big Lost River.

There, they’ll spend two April nights sleeping in tents and three days connecting with their classmates and learning confidence-building skills.  

Idaho BaseCamp, a St. Luke’s Community Health Improvement fund recipient, has been taking elementary students from around Ketchum into the outdoors for 26 years. Every year, more than 500 students participate in the program.

“For many, it’s their first time sleeping away from parents, staying in tents and having that camping experience,” said Idaho BaseCamp executive director Mathew Gershater.  

Along with unplugging, students develop skills in three core value areas: personal responsibility, courage and respect for all. 

“When we get outside, there are a couple of core values that surface,” Gershater said.  

“Personal responsibility, which means that ‘I’m responsible for not getting my feet wet because they’ll be cold.’ Being responsible for the things that I say or do … this includes bullying. Courage, this means saying yes to sleeping in a tent or trusting classmates ... to walk me through a forest blindfolded. And respect, which means respect for peers, my teachers and the earth.”

Learning these skills in a safe, supportive, low-stakes environment makes it easier to make better choices in higher-pressure circumstances.   

“Fifth grade is a transition period from elementary to middle school and into the puberty timeframe,” Gershater said. “That’s why we picked it.” 

As elementary students transition into their teen years, they often experience more peer influence and pressure to make risky decisions.

Students build self-confidence as they navigate the outdoors and strengthen relationships with each other, helping them better manage pressure and practice their communication skills.  

“We play games that help students reach a deeper level, so we can talk about topics like sadness and what it means to be sad,” Gershater said.  

Roughly 26% of teens in Blaine County are struggling with depression symptoms, according to data collected in November 2023 by Blaine County Schools, in partnership with St. Luke’s Community Health and Engagement as part of a larger statewide effort through Communities for Youth. The coalition is designed to connect and empower parents, schools and kids to recognize and address youth mental health concerns in their communities.  

The prevalence of youth depression symptoms in Blaine County is higher than the national average. 

“Through the Communities for Youth work in Blaine County, we learned that high levels of stress; lack of social connection, especially with trusted adults; and lack of sleep are the major factors driving the prevalence of depression in our area’s youth,” said Sarah Seppa, director of community engagement.  

The fifth-grade program is designed to instill skills that could improve resilience in students as they enter their teenage years. 

“Social connection is a protective factor for youth well-being and mental health and Idaho BaseCamp provides opportunities for kids to put away their phones and connect to classmates and adults they can look up to,” Seppa said. 

And the results are long-lasting.

“At Idaho BaseCamp’s 25th anniversary reunion campout, they had kids who graduated from the program who are now college students, speak about leadership skills and self-confidence that they gained through the experience,” Seppa said. “(The program) is making a difference.” 

They’re continuing to expand beyond the Wood River Valley so even more students can access the resiliency-creating benefits of IBC’s core values.  

In 2023, Idaho BaseCamp was awarded a CHIF grant to support the fall and spring fifth grade outdoor trips. This year, they received a first-round Community Health Improvement (CHI) grant to expand their work in the Magic Valley – and, eventually, throughout the state.  

“I feel grateful for the alignment of the work with St. Luke’s because underlying is this mission to create healthier communities, starting with youth,” Gershater said. “Together, we’re asking, how do we prevent problems instead of fixing them?”

About The Author

Alexis Bennett is a consultant for St. Luke's Community Health and Engagement.