hiking and connecting with refugees on the first hike project

Hiking and Connecting with Refugees

By Tasha Broomhall

Dating back to ancient times, connecting with the natural world has been a recommendation for boosting one’s wellbeing.

There are many benefits from spending time in nature:

  • It promotes positive mental health.
  • It reduces stress levels and arousal – decreasing heart rate and cortisol levels.
  • Negative emotional states like loneliness and anxiety are experienced more positively when outside in a natural environment.
  • Connecting with nature is easy to do, cost-effective and produces the greatest levels of effectiveness in improving wellbeing.

The First Hike Project

The First Hike Project (FHP) is a community movement which takes newly arrived refugee youth out on all-expenses-paid overnight hiking and camping adventures and are 100% volunteer-run.

Neil McCulloch

Neil McCulloch, an avid hiker himself, was surprised to learn that some newly arrived refugees to Australia were not familiar with the concept of hiking and camping as recreation. Neil saw an opportunity to provide social connection and started the First Hike Project with a group of friends who were also hikers. He easily found others who were willing to dedicate spare time towards introducing these new arrivals not only to the pursuit of hiking but also in extending a warm welcome to Australia.

Positivity & Eagerness

Neil has seen firsthand the benefits to individuals. ‘We’ve actually been very surprised by the positivity and eagerness of these youths to hit the ground running in this new country they call home. We’ve conducted preliminary surveys and have found the level of positivity about the future and the value they hold on their lives is extremely high (sometimes shadowing the Australian kids themselves) and we have seen this time and again on our hikes.’

‘I do wish that everyone has the opportunity to meet someone who has come to our shores as a refugee and to see for themselves that we are all the same and are dealing with much the same issues in one way or another.’

3 refugees on the first hike project in western australia

A Growing Movement

The First Hike Project began in Perth three years ago, and through social media support they soon had requests for new groups to be started in other areas. There are now five groups established around the country with plans for two more this year. Expansion relies on successfully attaining grants, so there is significant work to be done to enable expansion.

Learnings & Opportunities

Neil is excited by the success of the project. ‘There have been some surprising learnings to come out of the whole project.

We’ve had employment opportunities open up for some participants as a result of meeting ordinary Australians with the usual connections you have in your home country, we have seen the use of our National Parks increase after the participants get introduced to this resource literally on their doorstep with friends and families joining them, we have seen the desire for us to run longer hikes be pushed by some of the fitter participants and this is something that we are eagerly pursuing.

Not only that but we have seen some really amazing friendships start within the volunteer groups where like-minded folk have met each other through our project who didn’t know each other prior to volunteering with us.’

Getting Involved With The First Hike Project

For people who wish to get involved and support the project, the FHP team are always open to more volunteers to help plan events. There are opportunities to volunteer for show-and-tell type events at schools and TAFEs, to run sausage sizzles, to guide hikes, to provide support vehicle assistance, or admin help.

Donations Welcome

For the FHP to continue, they are seeking donations, both from individuals and from organisations. As well as smaller donations, there is the opportunity to sponsor a specific hike by donating the cost of a complete hike (currently $1000).

Capaldi, C. A., Passmore, H.-A., Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Dopko, R. L. (2015). Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 1-16. doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i4.449

Bio – Neil McCulloch

“I have been an immigrant and know how hard it is to assimilate or find your place in a new country. Owing to the amount of times locals have helped me out of a tricky spot or directed me to something I would have missed without them during my travels, I feel that First Hike Project is my way of giving back and being that person for others now. I’ve always loved hiking and have had the opportunity to do this in so many locations around the world (thanks to my gap decade) and just love the serenity and space that being in nature provides. Now that I have a family it is harder to get out there as often as I’d like so it’s nice to be able to activate others to use this resource that is freely available in this beautiful country.”

To explore volunteer opportunities, contact Neil on neil@firsthikeproject.org.au.

To support the ongoing work of The First Hike Project donations can be made through their website at https://www.firsthikeproject.org.au

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Image credits: Mark Illchuk and Neil McCulloch.

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