When refugee parents were first approached about enrolling their children in indoor climbing, many had never heard of climbing as a sport before. “I didn’t know what it was until they told us. I asked them to explain it more,” a refugee parent said. Kaitlin Campbell, health promotion program supervisor at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City, wanted to find ways to expose the IRC’s newly arrived youth to activities available in Utah. One of her ideas was to create an after-school climbing cohort.  

“The idea came about while just thinking about trying to get people out of their houses, do something fun and try something new.” She heard about the Youth Access Program at The Front Climbing Club, Salt Lake City's largest indoor climbing gym, and decided to reach out.  

“I was really stoked when Kaitlin reached out to me last May. I had just launched the first pilot class [of the Youth Access Program], and I knew that the IRC would be a great fit for the program. It was really just the perfect match,” said Keely Carolan-Pratt, Youth Programs Manager at The Front Climbing Club. The club provided instructors and equipment, while the IRC provided transportation and interpreters.  

But organizing the climbing cohort was no easy task. “It definitely took a lot of energy to get everybody in the right place, right time,” said Kaitlin. “I started calling people, trying to explain the concept of climbing to newcomers. I said, ‘you know, if this sounds interesting to you, I’ll come to your house and show you a video.’”  

The first cohort was piloted as a four-week program. “Initially, they were a bit timid, trying to figure things out. They were learning, listening and up for the challenge,” said Kaitlin. One youth said, “I was scared at the beginning,” while another said, “It was good. I liked it. At the beginning, they were showing us bouldering. It wasn’t that scary. The second one was with the rope. I was kind of nervous, but I got used to it.”  

Climbing – more than physical  

The next cohort started an eight-week program, which included youth that spoke Masalit, Kinyarwanda, Arabic and French. “Kids who spoke completely different languages and from completely different places in the world were collaborating and working together,” said Kaitlin. “Despite language barriers and cultural differences, they were all part of the same community.”  

“Over the course of the eight-week cohort, you could see their confidence really build – their knowledge, trust and excitement. Everybody said their arms were so tired, but then they’d say, ‘Let’s do another one!’” said Kaitlin.  

“Climbing isn’t just great for maintaining physical health. It can help mental and emotional development; gives our participants a really strong sense of identity, belonging, and confidence; provides kids skills to navigate the rest of their lives; teaches trust, resilience, and teamwork; and allows athletes to learn tools for overcoming fears and challenges and to persevere through failure. It's a really powerful means for personal development through sport,” said Keely. 

Aligning with the club’s cornerstones of community connection and giving back, the Youth Access Program offers classes to local community groups that face financial and cultural barriers to gym access. “Every single time, the IRC participants have the biggest smiles on their faces. It brings my staff and me a lot of joy to see how much fun they have,” said Keely. “Working with a different demographic has been really good for the staff. It’s prompted them to continue refining and adapting their teaching and coaching.” Through this initiative, Keely hopes to identify athletes that are enthusiastic about the sport and offer scholarships to join The Front Climbing Club’s youth teams.  

Expanding youth access  

The idea of providing youth better access to climbing motivated Keely to start this program at the club. Climbing changed the trajectory of her life. “Because I had such a privileged background in getting to do that from a young age, it was really important to me that the work I'm doing in this industry supports opportunities for people who might not have access to that without a little bit of external help.” 

“We all know that youth are the future and I know that climbing can help pave the way for the youth in our community to accomplish great things. But that doesn't start without giving everyone access to the sport.”   

 Expanding youth access to climbing is also on Kaitlin’s mind as she continues her program. “I'd love to see this be a starting point for more youth education and programming. I think it's a high need for our clients. I hope to see more funding opportunities that target outdoor recreation, arts and different things that help expose kids to what's available in Utah.” 

Would you like the support the refugee climbing cohort? Consider making a donation or volunteering your time! Visit Rescue.org/SupportSLC to learn more. 

Climbing high five
“Kids who spoke completely different languages and from completely different places in the world were collaborating and working together. Despite language barriers and cultural differences, they were all part of the same community.”
Photo: James Roh