If you go

What: 11th Annual Gear and Cheer

When: March 21, 6 p.m.

Where: HUB Boulder, at 1877 Broadway, Suite 100

Cost: $40 in advance, $75 for two, $100 for VIP

More info: womenswilderness.org

N iwot's Mia Sullivan, a single mother of two, wanted her daughter to experience the wilderness and learn her own strengths.

The cost of sending her then-middle school aged daughter Devon Wright to a Women's Wilderness Institute program for young girls was too high. But Wright was awarded a scholarship by the institute and went on an eight-day backpacking trip to learn about self-confidence, leadership and empowerment.

"I come from a very strong family," Sullivan said. "My kids didn't grow up in that kind of a structure, other than our core three of us -- Devon, her brother and I. I really wanted her to have an experience that would just affirm her strengths."

On Thursday, the Women's Wilderness Institute will host its 11th annual Gear and Cheer event to raise money for more scholarships for girls. The organization aims to raise $30,000, which director Shari Leach says is enough to fund full and partial scholarship for 40 girls.

The Women's Wilderness Institute's goal is to encourage confidence and leadership qualities in girls and women through wilderness programs. The Girls' Wilderness Program was created for girls ages eight to 18, a time when many girls face challenges to their self-esteem, Leach said.


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Independent researchers studying the Girls' Wilderness Programs found that participants exhibited positive changes in self-confidence and an increase in positive body image and body acceptance.

"To me this isn't about raising $30,000, it's more about creating scholarships for girls," Leach said. "That number happens to give us about 20 full and 20 partial, and it puts us in a good position to make sure that once again we're able to offer a scholarship to every girl who needs one. That's what's really important to us."

The Women's Wilderness Institute boasts that it has never turned away a girl who couldn't pay.

Wright, who went on her first wilderness trip in middle school, is now a senior at Niwot High. The 17-year-old has been an active Women's Wilderness Institute volunteer since that first trip three years ago. She said she hopes to study microbiology in college next year, and then plans to go to medical school.

"It really recognized the strengths I had internally and gave me a lot more self-confidence than I had before," Wright said. "(I had) a sense of fulfillment, like I really had accomplished something. Even though I didn't have anything physical to prove it, but I knew I had."

Fairview High senior Kathryn Jenks has been on four wilderness expeditions, including a leadership course that taught her how to make decisions and lead in her own way.

Jenks said she wants to become an elementary school teacher, so the leadership course gave her tools she can use in the classroom someday. Before her first wilderness course, Jenks said she was shy and not very confident. But afterward, after she'd gained dozens of new friends and real skills she could use, she became more sure of herself, she said.

Her mom, Margaret Jenks, said the trip taught Kathryn how to speak her mind and not worry about superficial traits, like her appearance, as much.

"They can be themselves," Margaret Jenks said. "Dirty and grungy and they can say what they want to say. She just came home full of confidence."

--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.