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River City Outdoors Supports St. Louis’s Access to the Outdoors

Learn more about River City Outdoors, and how you can support their mission.

“St. Louis, we have a problem,” is one of the first headlines in red sans font on the homepage of River City Outdoors. The Missouri-based organization founded in 2020 goes on to explain that its Midwestern region faces systematic challenges deeply rooted in racial, cultural, and socioeconomic divisiveness when it comes to outdoor recreational spaces. This has left BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalized communities feeling unsafe and unwelcome there.

River City Outdoors exists to deconstruct those narratives and rebuild a vibrant and equitable outdoor culture in the Greater St. Louis region by reconnecting the community to parks, trails, waterways, and other recreational opportunities. Their work starts with facilitating collaboration between youth-centered, community-led organizations, leaders, and outdoor enthusiasts. 

With the organization realigning and coming together more closely in the new year with its parent organization, River City Foundation, the two entities can work more closely to increase participation beyond nearly 3,000 youth served in 2023. Exceeding 4,000 is the goal.

“We’re going to leverage everything we can to serve more people and get the word out,” said Chris Geden, community engagement director for River City Foundation and program manager for River City Outdoors. “People don’t realize the outdoors is there and it’s free. Recreating can mean going for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a program and a big thing.”

Image via River City Outdoors; courtesy of Chris Geden

River City Outdoors doesn’t necessarily host its own programming though. It works as a convening hub of over 100 partners, such as youth service providers like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club of Greater St. Louis to outdoor education groups like Big Muddy Adventures, Missouri River Relief and Vail Ski Resorts.

Youth in the community have access to paddling, skiing, fishing, camping, swimming, and hopefully more recreational activities as River City grows its team and increases its capacity.

“I think that one of our strengths was that we partner with so many people and provide a lot of unique opportunities,” Geden added.

Focused on collective impact, the localized network of intersectional partners is part of two other networks: First, the Thrive Outside Initiative within Outdoor Industry Association, the organization representing the business side of the outdoor industry. And second, as a member of Outdoors Empowered Network (OEN), the national collective that’s increasing outdoor access and diversity through outdoor leadership training and gear libraries.

Just this summer, River City Outdoors opened a gear lending library with the support of OEN. It’s still in a pilot mode, available right now to partners in the community network as the small team learns the ins and outs of the process. Once they build more capacity, they hope to make the library available on a full-time basis.

Another way of making the outdoors and gear accessible to all is through the annual Gateway Outdoor Expo, which River City Outdoors co-hosts with Terrain Magazine. The expo is an outdoor recreation and adventure sports exhibition showcasing gear, services, resources, and events. Families in the Greater St. Louis region can participate in the interactive demos and free presentations, such as a 23-foot-tall climbing wall, mountain bike course with obstacles, and a technical tree climbing demo, and gear and trip giveaways.

Image via River City Outdoors; courtesy of Chris Geden

Next, River City Outdoors is establishing an outdoor equity fund to provide financial resources to its network. Because they operate as a program under a private operating foundation, they’re able to be involved in grant making. Steps to establish the fund include creating a racial equity consultant team that helps support the grassroots groups serving marginalized communities.

Everyone interacts with the outdoors individually, River City Outdoors acknowledges. “Other factors exacerbated by racial inequity – like incarceration, lack of safe and affordable housing, equal education opportunities, income inequality, public safety, and healthcare – all contribute to different experiences of the outdoors for St. Louis residents,” the homepage reads.

But instilling a love and respect for outdoor recreation, especially through repeated and reinforced experiences, has the potential to inspire communities over many generations.

“There’s nothing that we’re going to do out here that’s a competition,” Geden said. “If you do have a disability, we’re going to make that work too. Our programs are designed for everyone.”

Stay tuned on updates from River City Outdoors through their website, where you can learn more about projects and programs, get involved, and make donations.

Interested in building a gear library program in your community? Learn more about the Outdoors Empowered Network on their website, where you can become a member or a supporter.

Image via River City Outdoors; courtesy of Chris Geden

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