Brooklyn to Alaska is a local nonprofit organization founded by ISB Alumni Parent Sam Gregory, ‘16, ‘18, ‘22, whose mission is to provide a pathway for BIPOC youth to create transformative, life-defining experiences in the rugged wilderness of Alaska, while forging deep and lasting connections with the outdoors and each other. Since the organization launched over a decade ago, several members of the ISB community have gotten involved in this incredible initiative, from faculty to parents to alumni. Most recently, Brooklyn to Alaska has taken bolder action in addressing the systemic inequities of outdoor recreation through the development of their “Graduate to Guide” leadership program.
ISB Alumni Jonah Huapaya, ‘19 and Samuel Larriere, ‘18 are now among the first group of participants to complete the Graduate to Guide program. Lingua Franca sat down with these two adventurous risk-takers to hear about their respective journeys to Alaska, their thoughts on leadership, and recollections on how their experiences at ISB brought them to this juncture.
Tell us about how you first got involved with Brooklyn to Alaska.
Jonah: I got involved through Mr. Stokes, who was my Math Teacher at ISB at the time. He was involved in the organization as a leader, and I remember he shared a video about Brooklyn to Alaska in class. He noticed that I was interested in the program and then asked me to join. The same summer I graduated from ISB in 2019, I went on my first trip to Alaska.
Samuel: My mom was at an ISB parent event after my class had graduated, and Sam approached her to ask if I wanted to be part of Brooklyn to Alaska in the summer of 2020. After the participant trip was canceled due to the pandemic, Sam invited me to be on the inaugural leadership trip.
The leadership training program is all about closing the gap in outdoor adventure. The idea is to involve BIPOC youth from the Brooklyn community so that we have more program leaders who look like the participants themselves, that way they can see themselves in other fields and professions. Both Jonah and I participated in the leadership trip back in 2020, and now we will be leading the Graduate to Guide trip this summer. We’ll be teaching a group of participants the main components of wilderness survival and being an outdoor adventure guide
Prior to your involvement in Brooklyn to Alaska, what sort of wilderness and outdoor adventure experience did you have?
Samuel: Not really much at all! Sometimes my mom and I would take the MetroNorth to go hiking for a couple hours. I had been kayaking once before.
Jonah: I had gone on a few camping trips with my father in upstate New York, but this was the first kind of real rafting trip I had ever done. I didn’t have many wilderness skills going into the program, but I quickly realized that this trip was as much of a mental battle as it was a physical battle.
When you think back to when you first entered the program, what kind of skills did you develop on the trip that helped bring you to this point?
Jonah: When you first arrive in Alaska, climbing up to Sam [Gregory]’s cabin is two miles uphill, and even though it’s hard on your body, you still have to persevere. Now, my ability to persevere in situations has grown, and I have become a stronger person mentally because of this.
Samuel: Everyone has different values and strengths that they bring to Alaska. When you are in your comfort zone, it can be hard to tell what your strengths are, but when you’re up there and completely out of your comfort zone, your strengths – and weaknesses – are revealed, and it’s exciting to discover this about yourself and to see the participants discover this, too. We recently had a participant who could barely hike 50 yards, and at the end of the trip, he was promising us he was going to start working out and doing athletics to become stronger.
Brooklyn to Alaska and International School of Brooklyn are both pushing forward young people who will have a positive impact in the world.Jonah
How did your experience at ISB prepare you for a program like this?
Jonah: I think that being part of ISB’s tight-knit community helped me develop skills to better connect and engage with different types of people.
Samuel: ISB always prioritized being able to confidently speak in front of your classroom or an audience. I do genuinely feel like that helped me, even just in the sense of using the physical volume of my voice and having the ability to project and enunciate my words. All of these skills helped me throughout high school and beyond.
Are there any lessons, teachers, or experiences from your time at ISB that had an impact on you and the work you are doing as a leader at Brooklyn to Alaska?
Jonah: I remember during my 8th Grade graduation at ISB, my Physical Education Teacher, Jimmy Martinez, told me that I should continue speaking up in front of people. He saw that I was uncomfortable with public speaking at the time, but he also recognized the potential I had and told me to keep practicing so that I would become more and more comfortable. I felt that he saw me as a leader, and this encouraged me to explore that part of myself and to better learn how to conduct myself in front of a group of people.
Samuel: I think back on the way our Math Teacher, Mr. Stokes, treated us when we were Middle Schoolers, who could sometimes be an annoying and rowdy group. He was always kind and sympathetic but also strict when he needed to be. I try to use this caring approach when dealing with kids on the trip.
You both have become teachers in a certain sense through your involvement as guides in the program. Do you see yourself teaching or volunteering to mentor in the future?
Jonah: While I don’t want to teach professionally, I really do enjoy being able to present and equip these young kids with life skills, along with rafting and outdoor adventure skills. It’s fun for me and it’s fun for them!
Samuel: I would say career-wise, I’m not quite sure what I want to do yet, but Brooklyn to Alaska has shown me how vital it is to pass down information to the next generation. In some type of way, I’d want to be involved in that in my future – passing down skills and teaching kids in a safe and comfortable environment.
What attributes do you both, as leaders, bring to Brooklyn to Alaska?
Jonah: I think I bring perseverance and grit. No matter how hard things are, I will keep going. Each trip, we set out with a mission to complete the adventure. It’s not just about giving the kids a great experience, but also about showing them that nothing is ever the same, that they can overcome new challenges they are faced with, and that things are going to get better even if they are hard at first. I try to model a good mentality of staying strong and positive, both in good times or bad.
Samuel: At the core of what I bring to the program is curiosity. I think this is an important aspect of being a leader. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of what makes a leader, but I always want to learn as much as there is to know about rafting, the wilderness, and planning a trip. There is so much information out there, but we can often fall into a pattern of doing the same thing. I always want to learn more and excel and do better. Being curious about the participants’ backgrounds and stories and getting to know them makes you a better leader because this allows you to connect with everyone.
Do you see any overlap with Brooklyn to Alaska’s mission and core values, and those of ISB, or the way that both of these programs teach?
Sam: I think there is absolutely overlap between the two. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the International Baccalaureate program, but both Brooklyn to Alaska and ISB are all about developing a wide range of skills and using our minds in ways that we don’t always use in a traditional academic setting. Brooklyn to Alaska is exactly that. It’s taking young kids and exposing them to new and unique challenges, and encouraging them to use different parts of their minds and realms of knowledge.
Jonah: I agree, and I would also add that both programs strive for diversity and creating a brighter future with young leaders and innovators who want to change the world for the better. Brooklyn to Alaska and ISB are both pushing forward young people who will have a positive impact in the world.
Jonah and Samuel, along with other Brooklyn to Alaska graduates, will be leading river rafting trips, overnight backpacking, ice climbing, and glacier hikes for private clients in Summer 2024, so if you have always dreamed about an expedition to “The Last Frontier”, why not take a tour led by ISB alumni?
Visit brooklyntoalaska.org to learn more and to find out how you can support this amazing work.