The Wilderness Foundation, founded in 1976 by international conservationist Dr. Ian Player and philosopher Sir Laurens van der Post, offers programmes through the UK and parts of Europe, with wilderness trails which enable adults and youth to explore unspoilt wild places. It believes that wild nature must be preserved and more people deserve to experience its benefits.
Every year, The Wilderness Foundation helps over 5,000 people find their connection to the natural world and they’re successfully growing new generations of conservationists. Their goal is to connect people – especially struggling urban youth – to four essential relationships:
Friends give a regular donation, starting from just £2 per month, which provides the Foundation with a regular income towards its work. This small amount enables them to plan, allocate resources and help more people.
Most recently, The Wilderness Foundation UK was personally chosen by Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, as one of seven charities to receive donations in place of wedding gifts, in celebration of their engagement and wedding on 19 May 2018.
On Monday 23 July 2018, on what was an exceptionally hot day, we (Rohan) travelled to meet the team at their beautifully kept grounds in Chelmsford.
Upon arrival, CEO Jo Roberts gave us a warm welcome and a much-needed cup of coffee to start the day. We spoke about what we wanted to achieve from our day at the Foundation and ran through the programme of activities.
Jo expressed her gratitude towards Gift Your Gear and Rohan customers who have kindly donated their clothing in the past for amazing youth expeditions to Scotland and the Peak District. Without tried and tested waterproofs, their experience would have been very different!
She brought over a box of Rohan kit which was previously donated, and we then presented another box to add to their collection. “Fantastic – this will come in extremely handy for our upcoming planned trips with the youth groups,” said Jo.
She continued, “What we try to do with all of our sessions is to gain feedback; what we’re doing well, what we should be doing more of, what we should be doing less of.
“We usually start with what we call a ‘check-in’ where we go around the group and each talk about what’s been going on since we last met, how we’re feeling and what we’d like to get out of the day ahead.
“Today, after an easy walk through the grounds to find some dry branches, grass and flint, we’ll set up a woodland fire and make some lunch. We’ll also plan in some knife skill work as well as some one-to-one and group discussions.”
Not long after our chat, the youngest group started to arrive. They were here to explore, to learn about wildlife, to walk through the grounds and set up camp under the tree tops where there’s rope swings and trickling water underneath a wooden bridge. It’s idyllic, and a fabulous learning space for children.
Around 11am, the older youth group arrived for their day at the Foundation. It was a small group of six, each with very different backgrounds and stories. Many of them have been coming to the Wilderness for years and it was clear they already had an established relationship with Jo who immediately made them feel at ease.
We gathered up the equipment, food and refreshments for the day and wheeled it along the woodland paths, stopping at the safari tent for camping chairs, and then on to camp which was nestled in the middle of the forest.
Once set up under the treetops, Jo welcomed everyone and introduced us to the group. This is the ‘checking in’ part Jo spoke about earlier. Jo asked us to be honest about how we’re really feeling and use the ‘Head, Heart, Body’ approach the group has used in past sessions.
Of course, we were keen to get involved too. Going through each of these really encourages you to focus on your own wellbeing and although it was structured with talking points, this activity enabled the group to talk freely and openly about how they feel; physically and emotionally.
We were in the company of truly determined individuals - individuals who have overcome their own battles and are committed to changing themselves for the better, and they’re honest about it too. The Wilderness Foundation is their outlet, their respite from daily struggles, providing them with a sense of escapism. As the day went on, the group became even more at ease – there is no judgment here.
The conversations were certainly intense and emotional to hear at times but this soon turned to laughter. It was as though the discussion and talking lifted a weight and their spirits. At this point all you hear in the woodland is the sound of children playing, youngsters giggling, the odd airplane and the cracking of flint to light the fire.
This day felt timeless, epitomising just how great the outdoors is in improving our wellbeing and mood. From just one full day spent at the Foundation, we understood how special this place was.
Thank you to Jo and The Wilderness Team for having us. Keep doing amazing things!
“The spirit of man is not creative and whole unless he is involved in a caring and imaginative partnership with Nature”Sir Laurens van der Post – Co-Founder Wilderness Foundation UK
Jo has been a Director and Chief Executive of the Wilderness Foundation since 2004 but has been involved as Projects Director and Project Coordinator since 1998.
South African by birth, Jo has enjoyed a rich life of wild places in many parts of Africa as she grew up. She trained and worked as a Social Anthropologist during the time of Apartheid, working mainly with rural communities. Understanding and measuring the effects of value on wellbeing and encouraging people to respect and understand the value of wilderness and nature lies at the heart of her passion in her work.
Jo focuses on the effects of wilderness on developing sound youth leadership built on environmental awareness and ethics and developing positive wellbeing and mental health in young people who are vulnerable or at risk.
Using the extensive wilderness network and her close link to South Africa and programmes running there, she merges best practice from around the world into creative programmes that suit British climate and culture.
Over the past 20 years, Jo has established a wide range of programmes within the Foundation to meet these needs of nature connections, individuals and society as a whole. These include Wild Swans women’s leadership, Sirius Environmental Leadership Programme, TurnAround Programme, Out There Programme and the Chatham Green Education Programme. Jo has been a passionate advocate for the Imbewu Programme in South Africa, and in 2014 launched a Scottish programme to mirror this. Jo also leads the South Africa wilderness trails outreach – keeping her love of the wild intact and sharing this with others.
Jo is a Master NLP Practitioner and Advanced Psychotherapeutic Counsellor. She uses her skills in behaviour change facilitation and motivation across the board, with a particular focus on the outdoors.