Sunnyside High junior George Heisey works to clear a trail during a 15-day Volunteer Vacation with the Washington Trails Association up the Hoh River in the Olympics last summer. It was the fourth Volunteer Vacation for Heisey, who was also chosen to be one of WTA’s 15 youth ambassadors. (Courtesy photo)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- The seemingly endless trails creating access to Washington’s vast wilderness can provide welcome solitude in a crowded world, but they can also offer the perfect setting for developing critical communication skills in a more relaxed environment.

A shared passion for the outdoors brings people together, and it’s what drew Sunnyside High School junior George Heisey to the Washington Trails Association’s Youth Volunteers Vacation program. One of the association’s youth chief crew leads, Austin Easter, first met Heisey during a week-long trip to Beacon Rock on the Columbia River in the summer of 2014 and remembers a smart, kind but shy kid not always sure of how to work with others.

After Heisey returned a year later for another Volunteer Vacation to help repair more trails, Easter nominated the Granger native to be a part of the second annual class of youth ambassadors in 2015-16, a role Heisey happily accepted. This school year as the lone Central Washington representative, he’s a veteran of the program, and Easter sees Heisey as a shining example of leadership gained through community service on the trails.

“George is one of the prime examples of someone who’s grown throughout his involvement with our program,” Easter said. “He’s really matured into a leader and also becoming confident in himself.”

Heisey credits the summer trips for a vast improvement in his public speaking skills, since leaders are often asked to speak to groups about subjects such as safety and the proper use of tools. He tries to be a mentor to new participants, and Easter said the younger students often look to Heisey for guidance and advice.

Ambassadors give the trails association another valuable resource to connect with students, said youth programs director Krista Dooley. Easter said ambassadors have presented to more than 30 schools and community groups, allowing them to gain experience in leadership roles while spreading the association’s message.

Each year, around 40 students from volunteer vacations are nominated to attend a weekend of training in November, where they learn more about public speaking, outreach, and how to reduce barriers for people with an interest in the outdoors. Dooley said self-selection typically whittles down the group — to 24 in 2015-16 and just 15 this school year — because of other obligations, such as jobs and extracurricular activities.

Thanks to his parents, Heisey enjoyed hiking and camping for as long as he can remember, especially at the family’s cabin up north in the Methow Valley near Winthrop. But he knows many of his high school classmates might never get those same opportunities to make the long trips needed to explore the state’s best trails, so it’s up to him to offer encouragement and support however he can.

“I’ve been trying to get presentations to my classmates, just trying to get them interested in the ambassador program and WTA in general,” said Heisey, a member of the technology students association and the Knowledge Bowl team at Sunnyside. “They always act interested at first, but if I don’t follow up with them, it’s kind of hard to keep them interested.”

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Dooley said that’s a typical reaction from high school students when presented with any new opportunities. But she’s hoping with ambassadors like Heisey who are consistently available to offer advice and answer questions, those attitudes will change.

Each year, youth ambassadors meet at a summit in November — last year at Camp Seymour in Gig Harbor — where they’re directed to take action plans for projects back to their communities. She said many students create hiking opportunities or coordinate carpool programs, but before Heisey can do that, he’s starting smaller and trying to find enough interest to organize a work party for a day.

Only one other ambassador out of 65 in three years has come from the Yakima area, which continues to be a difficult area for the trails association to reach. But Easter said Heisey has shown all the traits needed to be an effective champion for the group’s efforts to teach youth the importance of public lands and conservation.

“He is so welcoming, no matter what people’s experiences are in WTA or elsewhere,” Easter said. “He’s the person that I rely on to bridge the gap than can sometimes develop in group dynamics. George is phenomenal at kind of bringing everybody together.”

The ambassadors will meet again in the spring, when Dooley said they’ll discuss their projects and often receive more resources to help empower communities. Last year’s reunion included trail work at Federation Forest State Park off of Highway 410 on the west side of the Cascades, and Dooley said details haven’t been decided yet for this spring’s trip.

Heisey went to two volunteer vacations last summer, including a 15-day trip into an isolated area of the Olympic peninsula near the Hoh River, and he’s looking forward to more this summer. Dooley said around 170 students generally attend the one or two week-long outings, which this summer will feature work around Mount Adams on Yakama Nation land burned in the 2015 Cougar Creek Fire.

She’s hoping that project, along with Heisey’s efforts, will help build a stronger regional connection — and it would probably save Heisey’s parents some travel costs. He’s grateful to them for helping him find like-minded peers and hopes to keep giving back while he’s in college through the trails association’s summer internship program.

“If you use something, try and give back to help maintain that,” Heisey said. “Whether it’s time or donations, whatever you can give, it’s always great to give back.”