What is She Is ABLE?
She Is ABLE is an Atlanta-based nonprofit that offers outdoor trips and experiences to marginalized women. We focus our efforts on women recovering from trafficking, exploitation, abuse, and addiction. In short, we exist to provide access to outdoor experiences to women who usually wouldn’t have it.
We believe in the power of a woman, and that all women possess the qualities to be Adventurous and Brave, Leaders and Encouragers.
When was it formed and why?
To be honest, I never wanted to found a non profit… I’ve always heard that it was a beast of a job, and man, that’s the truth. The narrative of She Is ABLE is really many small moments and collective experiences that inspired me to build the She Is ABLE concept. From backpacking through New Zealand with women I met on a bus to coaching soccer to high school women in Africa, I have had the privilege of partnering with powerful women across the world. A few years back, I was traveling to India and decided to spend some time in the Red Light District of Mumbai. I had worked as a volunteer off and on with girls recovering from a trafficking, and I had started to develop a passion for them. I will never forget walking down one of the boulevards in India and seeing women lined up in cages along the back alleys of the road. It looked like a kennel for young girls and women, of all ethnicities and backgrounds. My heart was shattered that day as I was faced with the reality that existed for millions of women across the world. I knew that I would never be the same and that ultimately, this work would become my purpose. Paired with that experience, I grew up an “outdoors girl.” You could find me playing sports, hiking, rock climbing, doing the summer camp thing… the whole gamut. After working as a camp counselor and ultimately serving as a Camp Director in Northern California, I began to connect my heart for these women and my love of the outdoors.
Aside from my passion for the nonprofit sector, I have also worked in the corporate sector, working as a consultant and human resources professional. As I was part time volunteering at a safe home, I casually dropped “hey, we should find a way to get these women outside” to a volunteer coordinator. She was elated and immediately asked how. Being newly married and working a full time job, I shrugged and said “not sure.” As the months passed, my world became smaller, having unplanned conversations with various program directors about what that would look like. What started as casual drive-by conversations became excited program directors that wanted to get involved immediately. I was overwhelmed, but I knew that the opportunity and demand was there, and I was the one to do it.
Last September, I quit my full time job to pursue building the foundation of She Is ABLE. That season was by far the most challenging of my life. With a supportive spouse, friends, and family, paired with many little part time jobs and an overwhelming amount of “networking” coffee dates, we are finally up and running. I have been given an amazing board of smart and articulate people, a passionate and engaging network of She Is ABLE believers, and organizations that lean in and are pumped about what we do. It’s really the most humbling position. It is those people that keep me driving forward. What we do and who we serve is a unique, challenging, and incredibly beautiful picture of redemption in the lives of women who, often not by choice, have fallen behind. We have a special and rare opportunity to help them redefine what they are able to do, adopt a new love and care for their physical body, and see breakthrough as they experience the freedom and power of being a woman in the outdoors. Their liberation feeds us, and we are grateful for the opportunity to do what we do, every single day.
What do you think women gain from have access to outdoors spaces?
REI recently published a revealing study about why women need to get outside. One survey found that “more than 85% of all women surveyed believe that the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness, and overall well-being, and 70% reported that being outside is liberating.” Doctors and therapists are now offering “being outside” as a treatment plan for people with anxiety, depression, and other disorders. It’s also no new news that being outside helps people clear their heads, get their daily dose of Vitamin D, and lift energy level and moods. For the women we work with, many of them have spent years in closed houses, basements, small spaces, or rehabilitation centers. Many are from low income neighborhoods, where going on a casual Saturday hike was never an option, as access to parks, trekking, learning outdoor skills, etc. is incredibly limited.
Our participants are strong, courageous, and game-changing leaders, and we aim to communicate that through our trips. Many of our participants have experienced neglect, abuse and severe trauma. As trauma — especially sexual trauma — manifests itself in various forms, women often biologically disconnect from their bodies and their environments. This leads to declining self care and negative feelings towards their physical beings. At She Is ABLE, we make it our mission to encourage and challenge our participants to reconnect with their physical self in order to seek deeper emotional healing and liberation. A powerful thing happens when a woman sees her body as not just a tool for abuse and neglect, but as a powerful, capable, and strong. That mental shift leads to such strong feelings of self-worth and accomplishment, and man, we love that!
What do you see as the link between self-worth and outdoors adventure?
Everything. Your body is the most powerful of vessels — worthy of praise, challenge, growth, change. The outdoors owns this unique sweet space: it provides challenging physical elements in an environment that is wild, free, and vulnerable. When you partner the physical with the emotional/ mental/ spiritual, powerful things happen! For me, this revelation came during my first summit up Mt. Shasta. I was blown away by my body’s ability — the way it fought, pushed, and pulled my mind and spirit forward. There were countless moments where my body, mind, and spirit all had to partner and unite to keep me stepping one foot in front of the other. Moments like that, when I see my body and ability for what it really is, I feel invincible. Vitamin D, fresh air, and strong, sore legs are always a winning combination for a healthy dose of self-confidence.
Can you share a particularly affirming or rewarding She Is ABLE moment?
Gosh, there have already been so many. On our second-ever day trip, we took a group of about 50 women on a waterfall hike in North Georgia. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. Our first trip had 8 people, and those women had been in a more stable place than this group in their recovery process. This trip was with women who were coming out of extremely traumatic experiences , and there was a bit of anxiety in the air at the new environment and new faces. At an overlook about halfway through the trip, I was sitting quietly behind the group watching them all interact when one of the women sat down next to me. We rested there together for a moment, and she looked at me and said “Miss Elise, when I picture heaven, this is what I picture it to be like.” Moments like those ground me. They remind me that the work that we do will far outlive our time with those women, and most importantly, they will be moments and experiences that will be passed forward.
If you could change one piece of legislature on the books today, what would it be?
I’m pretty torn on choosing one. My split heart would love for there to be more awareness and conversation around ATEST, the Alliance to End Trafficking and Slavery, as well as revoke the Dakota Pipeline decision. I know and actively see the reality that trafficking and slavery still exists, and I see how people often turn their ears and eyes away from that truth. The Dakota Pipeline controversy displays a cold-hearted approach to our environment and the well-being of a historically marginalized community. well-being.
What is difficult about doing the work you do?
There are a lot of dark, difficult, yet redeeming moments that exist in the work that we do. Emotionally, I have a tough time understanding justice while also advocating for the emotional safety and friendship of our participants. It is difficult to hear the stories of our women and not experience anger, sadness, and frustration. When we bring our participants into the outdoors, they feel the space and freedom to share their stories and process their experiences. Their heart wrenching recollections are sometimes really tough for me to wrap my head around and process; however, their resilience, persistence, and commitment to seek a better life for themselves is inspiring beyond measure. To choose recovery and healing is one of life’s most difficult opportunities, and these women approach these moments in stride and with confidence. While their experiences are unlike anything that you and I will ever see in our lifetime, their tenacity and perspective of life and freedom inspires me to live bigger, better, and with more purpose. They are fighters for themselves and their friends, and I am constantly blown away by their power and strength.
Logistically, our biggest hurdle has been working with the women themselves. Because they are considered an “at-risk” population, the liability is incredibly high. The reality of our work is that we are taking women who have mostly never experienced an outdoor trek before during a time in their lives when they are processing characteristics like trust, forgiveness, maturity, and acceptance. The effects of PTSD are evident on these trips. At any moment, a trigger can prompt a sudden change in our participants’ demeanor, position, or attitude, and there is little that we can do to anticipate when those moments will happen. While we do our best to prepare our partners, volunteers, and guides for the potential risk, we ultimately have very little control. This complicates some partnerships, limits travel, and compromises the ease of planning a “casual” trip outside.
Thanks, Elise! Follow She Is ABLE @she.is.able