A year ago we quickly took action in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. We pulled 17 students from the field on day 30 of their 78 day course. We furloughed most of our Administrative team as we bought time to gauge the magnitude and impacts of COVID-19. Our Portland Schools Program staff stayed home as schools shuttered swiftly. We ultimately canceled our summer and fall wilderness seasons, impacting 420 students who were already enrolled and hundreds more who would have joined us.
Most devastatingly, more than 110 amazing field staff lost their employment and community for the year and our administrative staff payroll was cut by 20%. We entered survival mode and a financial crisis that threatened not just our year but our entire future. Personally, the decisions impacting staff were perhaps the most difficult of my professional career, even though it was so obviously necessary.
This was an immensely tough year. We struggled. We were tenacious. At times we were not sure what would happen to the organization, or to us personally. But we prevailed.
Like many organizations, we prevailed through the hard work and dedication of our staff, both those who remained employed and those who supported us in other ways throughout the year. It was a year where inspiration was tough to find – without students we struggled with our sense of purpose and like many across the country, we found ourselves perpetually exhausted and struggling with the blurred lines between home and work.
Our community stepped up to donate over $600k, often for general operations, enabling us to employ core staff and to keep up with overhead costs. Our Board of Directors worked tirelessly to help guide the necessary decisions, support the staff and myself, and chart the best path forward.
We benefited greatly from federal government support, including a combined total of $1.25M in Small Business Administration funds, the vast majority forgivable and the remainder structured as long term low-interest debt. This support in 2020 helped us through the winter and additional funds received early this year will provide a financial cushion as we navigate the uncertainties ahead of us as we restart programming. We continue to pursue additional recovery money as allocated by Washington and Oregon as we face the immense costs of restarting and operating this year.
Today we are ready to serve and needed more than ever. Our Portland Schools team has been running virtual programming since January, as soon as our school partner was ready for us. We now have crews of students on base and in the field in Central Oregon, following robust testing and safety protocols. Our administrative team is back to full employment and focused on supporting this year’s students. We are ready.
And somehow, we are better for it. Early in the pandemic I often stated that ‘this is our course and this is our time’, invoking the preparation, resilience, tenacity and compassion that we teach to our students. I knew that we embodied those things so well already and yet would have much still to learn. There would be challenge and adversity just like our students face on course. As we look back at the year, I truly don’t know if the course is over, whether we are still in finals, or somewhere else in the progression. Time will tell.
As Outward Bounders, we know that the courses where students learn the most are often those courses where they face substantial adversity. To this day I am deeply impacted, and grateful for a course I co-led 20 years ago in Colorado. We misread the weather and got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm – a full crew of students and instructors soaked, cold, and on our own. I learned the lesson the hard way, and not for the last time, of what happens when you take care of others before taking care of yourself. On that course we didn’t summit a mountain, I don’t remember the trail miles, and the names of some of the students have been lost to time. But I’ll never forget the experience and to this day I continue to reflect on that course and discover new learnings.
This year was similar. It was more than a thunderstorm, more than a summit attempt derailed, but the parallels exist. A group of amazing humans faced more than what seemed possible, appropriate, or surmountable. We learned so much and came through it together, with our focus and dedication. Like on my course, this year we had people back at basecamp and elsewhere supporting us, including our alumni, donors, staff, parents and so many others. The support came in dollars, encouragement, smiles and reminders that the work we do changes lives. Thank you so very much.
Onward into 2021 we go, ready, stronger and with more purpose then ever!
-Marc Heisterkamp, Northwest Outward Bound School Executive Director