Stories from the Field

REI Poncho Project Ensures All Kids Feel at Home in the Outdoors

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Outdoors For Everyone Poncho

On a rainy Wednesday in September, Olympic Education Manager Emily Volz walked across campus to find a welcome sight: students contently and comfortably reflecting and writing in their NatureBridge field notes journals, despite the weather. 

Just last spring, the outcome of a wet afternoon may not have been as enjoyable—particularly when not all kids arrive to NatureBridge properly equipped for the Pacific Northwest elements. But now, thanks to the 250 sustainable “Outdoors for Everyone Poncho” crafted and donated by longtime partner REI, NatureBridge students are staying dry and comfortable so that the focus can remain on learning and exploring the natural world.

NatureBridge students staying warm and dry in the Outdoor's For Everyone Poncho.

The origin of the poncho project began in February 2018 during an Innovation Days event where REI Senior Innovation Engineer Steve Nagode was connected with NatureBridge. It was there he discovered a problem that needed solving. 

At NatureBridge, we aim to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion among all of our students—we believe it is essential for learning. At NatureBridge in Olympic, that means feeling comfortable in the outdoors, equipped with the proper gear. 

Coincidentally, REI had a quandary that also needed solving. REI had a surplus of functionally fit fabric that, due to cosmetic flaws, was likely destined for the landfill. Equipped with this knowledge, Steve went right to the REI Co-op Brand’s prototyping lab.

"We decided to work together with NatureBridge because they had a need, and we had the materials and designs," said Steve. "At REI, we believe a life outdoors is a life well lived. We know that getting people outside comfortably requires great gear, and this project pairs the two."

Before long, he had designed a poncho big enough to comfortably fit over a child’s backpack, using all excess high-end material, known as liability fabric. With the help of pattern maker Beb Santo and prototyper Adam Kurth, the poncho was finished with a hood, brim and cinching cords, making it the ultimate protection from inclement weather.

It really is quite a win for all involved, NatureBridge and the students, REI, Sports City and even Mother Earth.
Steve Nagode, REI Senior Innovation Engineer

The poncho was sent to NatureBridge’s Olympic campus for staff to provide feedback. After a few more tweaks, product development manager for REI Co-op Brands Development Gear Dain Engebretsen contacted Sports City, an REI factory partner in Vietnam that makes co-op rain jackets. The crew at Sports City felt so passionate about the project, they offered to donate the labor necessary for making 250 of the ponchos for NatureBridge students, in two sizes.

“We believe the outdoors is for everyone. It is a guiding value at REI, and it was a natural fit when we were naming this jacket,” said Steve. “If the kids using these ponchos are educated in the outdoors and don’t even think about the bad weather because their poncho is keeping them dry, that’s a win!”

The project connects directly to REI’s mission of inspiring, educating and outfitting for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship. And by reducing waste through recycling existing material, the project is exemplary of the stewardship that NatureBridge programming hopes to inspire.

Arriving to our Olympic campus at the start of the season, the Outdoors for Everyone Poncho is already living up to its name.

“The new REI ponchos are incredible, and all of us educators here at Olympic are extremely grateful for them,” said Olympic Educator Caleb Savage. “Many of our students don't have the luxury of arriving to campus with new rain gear… but now, these ponchos create equity among all of our participants." 

What if, after all this effort to get kids outside, they are miserable because they are cold and wet? That experience won’t spark joy in the outdoors. With these new ponchos, all kids can discover Olympic from a place of warmth and belonging.
Jen Kidder, NatureBridge Olympic Education Director

Now, thanks to REI, NatureBridge can ensure that all students have the opportunity to enjoy their national park experience—no matter the conditions. As Caleb explained, not only do these ponchos provide a safe space, they also protect student’s backpacks while exploring and learning on trail with the educators. Now, when students are asked to sit down for a lesson, for lunch or to take part in a science investigation, they’ll even have a poncho-created seat to keep dry.

Thank you, REI!

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