kids canoeing on lake as part of gateway to the great outdoors

WashU student’s nonprofit inspires St. Louis youth to get in touch with nature

By Rebecca Benson 

Gateway to the Great Outdoors offers character building and life lessons for low-income students in the St. Louis region.

Growing up, Nadav Sprague always enjoyed nature. Whether spending his summers on canoe trips or participating in WashU’s Wilderness Project, time outdoors shaped his character. After talking with his peers in the Wilderness Project, Sprague began to realize the immense value of an environmental experience —  and that it is an opportunity many low-income children simply do not have.

Nadav Sprague standing next to a Lift for Life student during a ropes course activity
Nadav Sprague with a Lift for Life student during a ropes course activity.

Sprague and his peers were looking for a way to offer low-income students an avenue to experience nature. In October of 2015, Gateway to the Great Outdoors launched as a student-run organization on WashU’s campus. Partnering with Lift for Life Academy and KIPP: Triumph Academy, Gateway to the Great Outdoors offers a safe and productive after-school club where students can learn how to use a compass or pitch a tent while being introduced to larger-scale concepts like sustainability, recycling and the principles of Leave No Trace. WashU students volunteer weekly to work with the students, who are in 5th and 6th grade. As an Environmental and Earth Sciences major, Sprague is able to apply his knowledge and passion for nature in a meaningful way, while giving back to the community.

After conducting a survey among participants of the program, Sprague realized it was necessary to transition from a student-run organization to a local nonprofit.

“We read a student’s response to the survey which said, ‘I like this club because it means I don’t have to go home.’ After reading this, I realized this club was a lot bigger than I had previously understood,” said Sprague.  “Originally I thought this was just a school club, but conducting the survey proved that it really helps to distract kids from troubles at home. It seemed like the right move to turn this student-run organization into a nonprofit so we could make a bigger impact.”

In addition to offering lessons about the environment, Gateway to the Great Outdoors provides kids with free transportation and snacks.

In January of 2017, Gateway to the Great Outdoors transitioned into a non-profit. This allowed for the organization to engage in fundraising to further enhance the club, such as acquiring the means to increase transportation for students. Sprague says the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship was an invaluable resource, as was Christine Ekenga from the Brown School. Additionally, Sprague notes that the teachers at Lift for Life Academy and KIPP: Triumph Academy are extremely dedicated and added immense value to the club by connecting with parents and encouraging students to expand their horizons.

Gateway to the Great Outdoors wants to expand to other cities, including Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Benton Harbor, Michigan with the goal to reach more low-income students in need of leadership, self-confidence, and community building lessons. On building a nonprofit in the St. Louis community, Sprague notes, “St. Louis is the perfect place to start a nonprofit because this city has the resources and they’re eager to explore new opportunities. The schools that we work with are extremely passionate about their kids and excited about providing new opportunities for them.”

As for the future of the nonprofit, Sprague will pass his position on to WashU freshman Becca Andersen, who will lead the St. Louis branch after he graduates. Gateway to the Great Outdoors is passionate about inspiring young entrepreneurs and students who may be interested in nonprofit work.