Missoula Non-Profit Spotlight: The AWOL Institute

By TOM DIDDEL

With summer fast approaching, Missoula parents often struggle to find activities and camps to fill their children’s summer vacation with something other than sitting on the couch and staying up late. While Missoula has a host of activities to select from, there is an alternative to the sports-oriented activities that also provides physical and mental stimulation for young girls.

The logo of the AWOL Institute, a Missoula non-profit. A multitude of outdoor skills will be taught, including camp cooking, backcountry safety, leave-no-trace camping, orienteering, and natural history. More importantly, participants will experience the freedom and solitude of Montana’swild.

This is an invaluable experience for girls and something the institute’s co-founders are very passionate about. Both Sarah and Jennifer had the opportunity to experience the benefits of spending time in the wilderness, and they developed the AWOL Institute after years of researching the positive effects outdoor adventures give young girls.

Sarah Megyesi and Jennifer Thompson’s early experiences in the outdoors were different; however, they both recognize how their childhood exposure to the wilderness helped them become successful adults.

Sarah was raised in eastern Montana and spent her summers enjoying Montana’s wonders every day. In fact her mother, who worked nights, wouldn’t allow the children in the house during the day. This left Sarah the untethered freedom that gave her the strength of character which is so important for young women.

Sarah was also greatly influenced by her family’s annual bike trips through Yellowstone. Her father would lead the way as the family experienced the wonders of the national park. These adventures became the spark that peaked Sarah’s interest in finding a way to share her outdoor experiences with young girls.

While it is easy to see how Sarah’s early childhood adventures in Montana lead her to creating the AWOL Institute, Jennifer Thompson’s relationship with the outdoors was cultivated in a different way.

A group of girls on a hike sponsored by the non-profit Missoula AWOL Institute.

Jennifer remembers going to her first camp in Virginia and the tremendous trepidation she felt about spending a week with strangers in tents without showers or modern conveniences. Her apprehension soon turned into a life-changing memory. The bond she felt with her fellow campers as she slugged through sinking mud and sang camp songs truly changed her. The experience gave her self-confidence and a sense of community responsibility that left an undeniable mark on her life.

These backgrounds became the foundation for Sarah and Jennifer’s vision of a back-country experience specifically tailored for girls. After Sarah graduated from college, where she played basketball, she felt she needed to move back to her outdoor roots. Years spent in a gym had made hungry for the freedom she had felt in her childhood.

After the passing of her father, she made the decision to enroll in graduate school with the sole purpose of researching and developing curriculum for an outdoor institute designed for young women. Sarah’s research reaffirmed the benefits she herself had gained because of her exposure to the outdoors throughout her childhood. She found that girls often have a great need to spend time away from the rigors of school, family, and extracurricular activities.

In other words, they needed time without someone telling them to use their inside voice or to not bounce the ball in the house. They longed for the complete freedom the wilderness provides in abundance. In short, Sarah’s research shows young girls crave the independence the AWOL Institute was founded on and strives to provide.

Currently the AWOL Institute is accepting young girls for three separate weeklong adventures this summer. To sign your child up for a life-changing experience, or find more information about the AWOL Institute, visit their website.

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Tom Diddel has lived in Missoula on and off for nearly thirty-eight years. He enjoys skiing, hiking, and many other outdoor activities. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Montana and is currently working as a Freelance Writer and a Para-Educator.