When she was a child growing up in Santa Cruz County, Elyse Destout remembers playing outside until the sun went down.
But for most kids, that era has passed. The prevalence of smartphones, tablets and technology created a culture of children focused on LCD screens and social media—a shift Destout, now 39 and a mom herself, couldn’t help but notice
Neither could Russel Maridon, a member of the Santa Cruz County Fish & Wildlife Commission who knew Destout through her work as a photographer.
“We all saw these young people so addicted to these devices they wouldn’t even look up to say hello to people in the room,” Destout says.
That problem pushed Maridon to found Monterey Bay Outdoor Youth Day in 2010, and recruit Destout to help organize it. The summit at Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds reintroduces children to outdoor activities through hands-on experience, drawing about 2,000 people on a Saturday every May. The events have featured everything from archery ranges to short surfing lessons. This year, organizers have expanded it, adding an extra day on Friday in partnership with schools across the county.
Soquel Elementary School is sending both its third-grade classes to the Friday event.
“Not all of our kids have access to some of the things she’s presenting to us,” Principal Gerri Fippin says, noting that English is a second language for about 40 percent of the school’s population. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”
With six schools sending roughly 300 elementary and high school students to attend Friday, there is still plenty of room to grow in the coming years. Destout, whose children went to Soquel Elementary, says email and Facebook feedback over the years encouraging her to expand it to a weekday.
The event has skewed toward younger children in the past, but Destout worked with organizations this year to broaden the appeal. Representatives from participating organizations hope to talk to teens about internship and career opportunities in their fields.
The first event in 2010 featured sailing, archery, hunting, bicycling and a host of other outdoor activities, with a goal of inspiring and introducing young attendees to all aspects of being outdoors in the Monterey Bay area. Since then, it has grown to include messages of sustainability, environmental stewardship and civic engagement as groups like Coastal Watershed Council, Pajaro Valley Water District and Watsonville Police Assistance Board signed on.
“In the beginning, it was very sports-driven,” Destout says. “Now we have both the sports aspect with the healthy living, sustainable living and the conversation.”
Part of the evolution meant recruiting teens to help develop and organize the event.
“The goal really is that I want all of this to be created by young people because it’s a youth event,” she says. “My goal is that if we can get kids excited about this kind of stuff, then they will be able to plan things. They’re going to be taking care of us one day.”
Among the early recruits was 19-year-old Sabrina Waldie, who started as a 16-year-old volunteer. She stuck with the organization in part because of her younger siblings and cousins and fondly remembers her five-year-old cousin learning to garden and care for plants at Monterey Bay Youth Outdoor Day.
“It helps little kids explore different sports and things they can start getting into,” says Waldie, who’s studying at Cabrillo College. “It might help them when they’re older.
Maridon, the event’s founder, recruited Destout leading up to the inaugural event, since both felt the same about children’s relationship to technology. “Nowadays, it’s like pulling teeth to tell kids to go outside,” Destout says.
The event went on hiatus in 2016 because of shortages in funding. Destout aims to ramp up fundraising efforts this year through other events, including a potential zombie run in the fall. The annual event’s budget runs between $10,000-$15,000. While Destout applied for grants in the past and sent letters to businesses asking for donations, she knows the event’s future is tied to expanding fundraising.
“If we are going to continue to do two days in the future,” she says, “the fundraising efforts have to be a lot more.”
Monterey Bay Youth Outdoor Day will be from 10 to 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. The event is free and open to the public.