BYEP’s first formal graduation for ‘the Approach’

By Emily Stifler Explore Big Sky editor

When Emily Chambry first moved from Texas to Big Sky in eighth grade, she was not happy to be there.

“I was just lost,” Chambry said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I was mad at my mom for moving us to Big Sky, hated Montana, and didn’t know how to snowboard.”

Then she joined Big Sky Youth Empowerment, learned to snowboard, and graduated from high school a year early.

“It was fun hanging out with the mentors and learning how to do an amazing sport,” Chambry said.

Chambry was one of more than 50 at-risk teenagers from Bozeman, Belgrade and Big Sky that took part in BYEP’s new year-round curriculum, “the Approach.” Working in small groups, participants go snowboarding, skiing, climbing, rafting, do a high ropes course, and go to Yellowstone Park. The organization, which has been around for 10 years, aims to reduce negative behavior and increase positive risk taking and potential – all in the spirit of having fun.

Chambry is now a freshman studying psychology at MSU, something she said is due, in part, to her experiences talking with mentors at BYEP.

On a Thursday night in early September, Chambry and 20 other students took part in the first-ever Big Sky Youth Empowerment Approach program graduation ceremony.

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Bozeman’s Beall Park Arts Center had standing room only with an audience of over 130 attendees, as each graduate stood and made a statement about what the program meant to him or her. Many echoed Chambry’s sentiments:

BYEP made me feel better about myself.

It taught me to be respectful, and taught me to respect myself.

BYEP is a family that teaches you about yourself.

It teaches life skills.

BYEP helped me make healthy choices and risks.

I learned how to turn the world into my own personal playground.

Every important life lesson I’ve learned, I’ve learned through BYEP.

It saved my life and made me who I am today.

It helped me make friends.

From talking about drugs, sex and rock and roll, to shredding the gnar and being audacious…

It was a beacon of hope.

The room erupted in cheers, and Program Director Dave Granger appeared in front of the group.

Graduating from “the approach,” BYEP’s first tier, was not a free ride, Granger said. “They earned this graduation.” In a time when it’s hard to get kids involved with youth programs, this program has a waiting list.

Founder and Executive Director Pete MacFadyen started BYEP in 2001 with five kids, five mentors, and a $5,000 budget. Now the program has more than 50 kids each season, 28 mentors in the winter, and an annual $500,000 budget. For MacFadyen, “it’s all about the kids.”

“BYEP is exceptional because everyone feels like they want to be part of it…. I’ve never been in a room with so many diverse people digging the same thing,” Granger said. He credits awesome mentors, unparalleled opportunities, strong community support, and the program’s solid mission.

Granger also talked about “the Crux,” BYEP’s new second tier program, which will support high school juniors and seniors and help them develop skills to be autonomous, engaged citizens. The curriculum is built on academics, character education, life skills, and stewardship, and will meet weekly at MSU.

Then Granger introduced the graduation speaker, Michael Leach, founder of the non-profit Yellowstone Country Guardians, which works to connect locals with conservation.

Leach spoke about Montana’s sacred landscape, and about how any opportunity to be with Big Sky Youth Empowerment students inspires him.

“You get one time to walk this earth,” he said.

Then he tasked the graduates to leave a legacy.

“Go out and represent. Go out in your own community and make a difference. Go out and be audacious,” Leach said. “You have to be audacious to be a leader in the 21st century.”