Eventually, you arrive—and then you keep arriving. There’s a turnoff from the rural highway. There’s a descent down a winding dirt road. There’s a river—and yes, your school bus drives right into it. There’s a cabin and a bunk. There’s an invitation to go fishing or kayaking or geocaching. There’s a shack filled with bicycles, a canyon wall with ropes dangling. And alongside your teachers, there are new men and women telling you about the science and wonder of the great outdoors.
This is the H. E. Butt Foundation Outdoor School, an educational program that harkens to some of the earliest intentions of the Butt family for this canyon—when they purchased it in 1954, Howard Butt, Sr., and Mary Holdsworth Butt were intent on providing space for boys and girls to experience camp life and creation. The mission of Outdoor School is to continue to make good on that intention by partnering with schools to provide no-cost campsites and educational opportunities.
Outdoor School also exists as an adventure recreation resource for all Foundation camps and programs. Part of the staff serves Laity Lodge camps and retreats with adventure services—if you’ve rappelled or mountain-biked in the canyon, this staff got you going and kept you safe. But you may not have realized that Outdoor School also serves 2,500 students per year, from third grade on to university-age, in three to four-day retreats.
Director Erik Silvius has been running the program for five years, and he hails from a background that includes both public school work and camp work. Silvius sees Outdoor School as being about much more than providing retreat space and fun outdoor experiences. “We want to start a movement,” he says. “This is a program that fosters love of both the outdoors and community through personal acts of caring and grace.”
In other words, they take working with students very seriously. Liz Hoyer, the outreach coordinator for the program, works with school districts to tailor each retreat to the unique goals and objectives of each school. Parents, teachers, and administrators take equal part in planning and facilitating. When they get to camp, says Hoyer, they “see one another in a new light. Watching your teacher rappel from the cliff you just descended or learning about the critters in the river opens doors for conversation and deepened relationships.
“Learning takes place on many levels when the barriers of the school environment are removed.”
“We had a kid come to an Outdoor retreat for a few days,” says Silvius. “Upon arriving back at school, he asked a teacher, ‘What can I do to get my family to experience this?’ That desire to bring the spark they experienced here back to their homes, to their families, then to the entire community—that’s what we want.”
This time of year, Outdoor School is winding down its school-focused side to gear up for a summer of assisting camps and retreats. But summer will soon become fall, and the program will roll back into the heart of its mission for schools all over Texas.