Davy Rothbart of Washington II Washington Talks How Hiking Can Change Children’s Lives

The editor of “FOUND Magazine” shares his vision for his nonprofit, which takes kids on trips out of the city—many for the first time.

By: Nicholas Hunt

On December 31, 2009, Emmanuel Durant Jr. died from a gunshot wound while defending his sister and nephews during a robbery in Southeast DC. He was 19. Today, in his memory, 31 children from Washington, New Orleans, and Michigan are going hiking for the first time. For many of them, this is the first time they have ever left the city.

The annual hike, now in its third year, is organized through a program called Washington II Washington, started by Davy Rothbart, now the editor of FOUND Magazine, and Durant’s family. We talked with Rothbart about tragedy and the power of the outdoors.

How did Washington II Washington begin?

In 1998, I was living in DC, around 17th and Kentucky, Southeast. I met a neighbor boy named Emmanuel, who was nine at the time, and became friends with him, his mom, and his older brother and sister. In the weeks following Emmanuel’s death, I spent a lot of time with his family, and we grappled with what the best way might be to honor his memory. [We] decided that giving kids the opportunity to explore nature and expand their sense of the world would be the best way to celebrate Emmanuel’s life. 

Washington II Washington’s goal is to simply to take kids hiking. Do you think such a simple goal can have a large impact?

I think so. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen for kids growing up in American cities is the way their world can feel so small. To me, getting out into nature is a way to expand kids’ minds and give them a larger sense for the world we live in and its possibilities. Also, the sense of accomplishment the kids have when they climb to the top of a mountain is palpable.

How are the kids chosen for the hike, and where do they come from?

Over the course of the year, [Emmanuel’s] brother and sister try to identify local kids who would most enjoy—and most benefit from—a hiking adventure like this. Other kids who’ve heard about previous trips from friends express an interest in coming, and so far we’ve been able to accommodate all of them. This year we’re bringing 31 kids total on the trip, due to the growing demand.

How has the program grown over the past three years?

We’ve added more kids from Michigan and New Orleans this summer. It’s exciting to see how much interest there is in these trips, from the young hikers to my friends in their twenties and thirties who’ve helped me lead the trips to the people around the country who have helped us fund the trips by chipping in a few bucks.

How have you been getting the word out? Do crowdsourcing and social media help?

Absolutely. We’ve found that many people support our mission once they learn about it. We started just by sharing the project with our own friends and families, and they’ve shown great support. Most people who’ve supported the trips have learned of what we’re up to through social media, or through word of mouth from their friends.

How can people get involved? What does sponsoring a child entail?

This year, we’ve raised $8,000 out of our $10,000 goal and are really hoping to raise the rest of the funds we need. The cost of the trip for one kid is $200, so for a contribution of $200, anyone can give a kid the experience of a lifetime. We also reward our contributors’ generosity with fun prizes, from FOUND magazines to homemade thank-you cards from the kids.

What are future goals for the organization? Do you want to grow or keep things simple?

That’s a great question. Obviously, we would love to keep growing so we can bring more and more kids into the mountains. At the same time, increasing the size and frequency of the trips means creating a more ambitious organization with larger funding goals, and personally I’m not sure if I have the kind of nonprofit experience to know how to build that kind of larger entity. My hope is that we can keep attracting energized, capable people who can help us grow in a sensible way.