Beth Southorn of LifeSTEPS talks about resilient communities and access to the Pacific Crest Trail

A while ago, I spent a few months introducing the Pacific Crest Trail to a group of teens from Beth Southorn’s LifeSTEPS USA. They provide a comprehensive array of services to 80,000-plus low-income Californians, a great number of whom live near but have never heard of the PCT. To be more relevant to all, we used this partnership as an initial testing ground to explore ideas about diversity and inclusiveness on the PCT.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you’re connected to the trail?

I am the Executive Director of LifeSTEPS. We provide supportive social services to low-income affordable housing residents throughout California that are designed to break the cycle of poverty. I love the outdoors and I love that I live so close to the Pacific Crest Trail. I also count Liz Bergeron as one of my friends, so I’ve developed and even greater appreciation for PCT because of Liz. She was one of my mentors and was a wealth of knowledge. But we also found we had similar interests such as protecting the environment and the outdoors. This has kicked off a very fun and rewarding partnership as the PCT works to educate children about the benefits of nature and our residents learn of the greater need for conservation.

Beth Southorn on the Pacific Crest Trail

Hiking back to the cars near Carson Pass with the LifeSTEPS teens. Beth Southorn taking up the back.

LifeSTEPS serves Californians who live in affordable housing communities. What’s involved in that?

We provide referral, adult education, age-in-place support for older adults, and case management services, in addition to after school programs on-site in the communities we serve. We also provide age-in-place services and support to older adults living in affordable communities. Through our supportive services we maximize the strengths of individuals and build resilient communities that are designed to transform lives in a holistic way and ensure our children are educated enough to break out poverty.

The people in your communities generally aren’t using the PCT. Why do you think that is?

We largely serve the working poor. Their life experience is one of survival – they are consumed with doing whatever is necessary to pay rent, buy groceries, and meet basic obligations. Quite often the adults in the home are working multiple jobs, and even the older children take on work to help their family make ends meet. Honestly, they are so busy surviving that they don’t have the time or wherewithal to take advantage of the PCT. If they do manage to slice out time to do something special, access to transportation or the cost of personal transportation can be prohibitive. This being said, I do believe that if we could muster community resources to make it possible for families to experience the PCT together they would find it immensely valuable and pleasurable. As an example, we provided an environmental education program for a group of kids last year. Some of them had no connection to why recycling is so very necessary and why water conservation is essential. There is something about our children going to the mountains, fresh outdoors and waterways that awakened their concern for the environment. In my opinion, if we value the great outdoors ourselves we need to ensure everyone is educated about it in order to protect it!

Beth Southorn, of LifeSTEPS, paints Sacramento's Tower Bridge.

Beth Southorn, of LifeSTEPS, paints Sacramento’s Tower Bridge as a part of the Pacific Crest Trail/Sacrmamento watershed mural that we created.

Beth, you offer a wide range of classes from personal finance to parenting. Why add an environmental education component about the PCT?

The PCT is truly a treasure! And, for many, it’s not too far from their home. By providing education about PCT, it connects our residents more to their community while also providing the opportunity to learn about the abundant natural resources in their area. What’s amazing is that our residents living in San Bernardino or Sacramento have equal access to the same resource! In that way, the PCT actually creates a natural connection. The working poor are just as interested in preserving our natural resources as you or I. They just need the opportunity to discover resources like the PCT. We have introduced environmental education into our after school curriculum. We believe that providing children with a first-hand experience with nature can be life-altering.

Being totally honest, my experience was a great exploration into what’s possible in the realm of diversity and inclusiveness. PCTA is working with various partners that involve youth and minorities and we keep running into a basic barrier: more to do than we have time and resources for. What are your thoughts on that? Any advice?

There will always be more to do and not enough time or resources! But, I think we can leverage more resources and accomplish much more by joining forces with others. Collaboration is important because individually we can only do so much, but together we can increase the effect we have in the world ten-fold! I don’t know about you but in the long scheme of things what really matters is whether or not we did anything at all. What won’t matter is that we were too busy to do good. Personally, I’d rather be added to that “do something positive” group when I reflect back on my life and I live for that moment everyday I wake up.

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.