As a Perry High School student, Sean Justice was thrilled to be invited on his first trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Armed with a high-tech digital camera, he and a group of Pittsburgh teens headed to the hills, hiking, and paddling canoes. In the evenings, the kids cooked dinner for the group at their campground. Along the way, they formed bonds with each other and with their volunteer leaders. That trip was the beginning of an organization now called Change the Game.
What Sean remembers most are those leaders who stepped up to devote their time and guidance. They showed the kids that they cared. The program helped Sean to view life from a different perspective. He hopes to find a way to give back.
“I can look back on it as a time where someone invested in me and wanted me to have a chance to experience things I never experienced,” says Sean, now a 22-year-old college student at Pitt.
That’s what Change the Game, a youth development organization founded by Michelle Parolini and Joanna Papada, is about. They use outdoor physical activity as a way to propel kids forward while creating meaningful connections between teens and adults. Organizers hope kids will put aside their digital screens and passivity to develop a curiosity about the larger world.
“We use movement for youth empowerment,” Michelle says.
Change the Game’s yearlong program includes 700 hours of outdoor activities, from camping to hiking to canoeing. The teens selected to participate learn team building, environmental stewardship, advocacy and the ability to thrive in a world where the playing field is equal – in nature.
When kids are outside of their comfort zones, barriers are broken down. That comfort zone is continuously tested. Throughout the year, the kids travel 7,000 miles, from the Laurel Highlands and Pymatuning State Park to far-flung spots like Yellowstone. The group solicits donations and raises the money for the trips.
“We sleep out in the woods every season,” Joanna says.
Each trip has a community service component, too, which adds up to 200 hours throughout the year. The idea is to help kids understand that “it’s not all about them,” Michelle says.
“We want them to define the game and change it for themselves before they graduate,” Joanna says.
Hence, the name.
The just-completed 2017-18 program was capped off with a 10-day trip to Denali National Park in Alaska, where the group spent four days in the wild, hiking more than 70 miles. They completed a 20-mile bike ride on the trip and worked on a day-long community service project.
“These students are not athletes or outdoorsy,” Joanna says. “In fact, they will tell you that if they weren’t on a mountaintop in Denali, they would be in their beds watching Hulu on their iPhone.”
Change the Game started six years ago as a one-week summer trip when money was donated to take a group of kids to Yellowstone. Joanna, who works at Manchester Bidwell Corp., was asked to oversee the trip. She invited Michelle, a fitness professional and outdoor enthusiast, to come along.
On the way back, Michelle looked at Joanna and asked, “So, now what?” Having developed relationships with the kids, she didn’t want to walk away.
From there, Change the Game was born. The partners sketched out plans on cocktail napkins for a program that focused on getting teens actively moving. Over the last six years, Change the Game has worked with 292 kids. Michelle remains in touch with about 95 percent of them on a daily or weekly basis.
“My goal in life is to change the dialogue about how we talk about youth in America,” she says. “This breaks down the walls. We are here to make change.”