Some of Lauren Billings’ favorite childhood memories took place in nature, but it wasn't until she grew up, moved to New York City and joined an outdoor adventure group that she realized some kids never have the chance to develop a relationship with the great outdoors.
Billings, 26, spent her childhood in suburban Jacksonville, Florida, running around in her backyard with neighborhood friends and swimming in her family’s pool much of the summer. When the family relocated to Salt Lake City for her middle school and high school years, she traded swimming for hiking. Attending Cornell University in upstate New York in the following years kept her in the green space she loved so much.
It wasn’t until she graduated from college and accepted a consulting job in New York City that she found herself surrounded by more buildings than trees. Despite her efforts to escape to Central Park as often as she could, her new home was missing something she realized she had taken for granted her entire life.
“I think it was really when I moved [to New York City] that I kind of realized how important being outside and being in nature really was to me,” Billings told The Huffington Post.
After discovering that park space just wasn’t going to do it for her, Billings set out to find ways to get into nature on the weekends through day hiking trips. She stumbled across Discover Outdoors, a group that helps city dwellers in New York and Philadelphia adventure into nature during their time away from the office. She signed up for several weekend trips and enjoyed every one -- so much that she begin setting her sights even higher.
“I was looking at their website at some of their more adventurous trips, Mount Kilimanjaro being one of them,” said Billings. “It was something that I contemplated for a while. I was looking for something to really push myself outside of my comfort zone and to really stretch my own limits.”
As she perused the trip details, she noticed an option that allowed to her to sign up for the trip and partner with the Discover Outdoors Foundation -- the nonprofit counterpart of the hike organizer she'd enjoyed -- to raise funds for its causes simultaneously. The Discover Outdoors Foundation, founded in 2012, helps urban youth experience nature in ways they may never have before. The group helps fund trips outside city limits for hiking, camping, snowshoeing and fishing, helping participants tap into the incredible, life-changing resource that is the outdoors.
After speaking with Discover Outdoors Foundation co-founder Beth Harrison about the organization's mission, Billings said she felt like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and raising money so city kids may some day make the same trek was the perfect way to express her passion and benefit more than just herself.
“I was, to be honest with you, pretty scared -- and I still am -- but honestly the way I define courage as being scared and doing it anyway,” Billings said. “And so that’s why I sought out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.”
Billings is hard at work training for her climb and aiming to raise $7,500 to support the organization. She's a strong believer that outdoor education can be a powerful tool for urban youth, and looks forward to playing a role in bringing it to them by joining forces with the Discover Outdoors Foundation.
The passion and enthusiasm of the Discover Outdoors Foundation co-founders Harrison and Kirk Reynolds helped inspire Billings to support their cause. In a matter of 18 months, they took outdoor trips with about 1,000 kids, who statistics say may otherwise have been stuck in the six-block radius surrounding their homes.
When Billings isn’t traveling for her consulting job, she’s out on the trails with other Discover Outdoors participants and friends she invites along for adventure. She’s focusing her training on cardiovascular endurance. By the time Aug. 31 arrives, she said she'll be ready to take on Mount Kilimanjaro for herself and for the children who benefit from the Discover Outdoors Foundation.
“I’ve found that I’m already pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do,” Billings said. ”I’ve volunteered before, but I’ve never actually started a project or a fundraising campaign like this, and so coordinating all of that and actually asking people for money and putting myself out there, that’s been a really neat experience. It’s helped me get past some fears that I’ve had about making sure I don’t fail, and just standing for this cause and for these kids who I want to inspire through what I’m doing -- putting that in a higher place than my own fears of looking bad -- has been an amazing experience.”
Billings said she's ready to use this challenge to inspire others to do the same within their own lives. Whether they want to climb a mountain or simply not let fear dictate their paths through life, everyone is capable of accomplishing amazing things, and she is excited to be a living example.
“There’s a quote I’ve been keeping in mind as I’m training and getting ready for this,” said Billings. “It’s by mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mount Everest back in the 1950s. He said, ‘It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.’ Thinking about that really keeps me pushing and training. And keeping that in mind when I’m actually climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and that if I do this, I can do anything.”