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REACH introduces refugee youth and their families to  experiential learning focused on STEAM education and adventure sports. 


In late 2013, another cherished refugee teen’s life was lost due to gang violence in Chicago. Refugee community members, gathered at the boy’s memorial service in a church basement, repeatedly expressed their concerns for the safety and well-being of their children. They reported what REACH’s Founder Shana Wills long witnessed in her work – the seduction of American youth culture, video-gaming, gang recruitment, racial discrimination, and diminishing self-esteem due to limited English proficiency or cultural barriers. This heartbreaking evening was not isolated, and it strengthened Shana’s long standing desire to find alternative models for addressing this disturbing urban issue.

EL Train in Rogers Park Chicago

Earlier in her career, while working as the director of refugee and immigrant services at a large Chicago resettlement agency, Shana and a community health colleague recognized a need to get newcomer families outside of their small apartments and away from their crowded city blocks to improve their emotional and physical well-being. They submitted several proposals for seasonal “therapeutic journeys” to winter snow lodges and summer camping retreats. Funding was never forthcoming and the idea was quickly overshadowed by other supported interventions. But the concept continued to linger in Shana's mind. 

REACH youth smiling in overturned kayak

During the summer following the youth’s memorial service, Shana’s concern persisted. As a single mother, Shana spent most of her free time taking her son on affordable outdoor adventures where they would escape into the wilderness to explore and learn about the natural world.  On one long beautiful weekend of kayaking, biking, and camping, while soaking in the joy of the moment, the idea of an ecotherapy initiative reemerged. Would the power of the outdoors inspire, challenge, and heal refugee youth as it did Shana and her son? Still uncertain about starting a new nonprofit, Shana sought out trainings to refine her own outdoor technical skills. During an impromptu discussion with several coaches after a whitewater kayaking session, she gave voice to this idea of providing outdoor adventure and education experiences to refugee youth. Their encouraging response subsequently opened the doors to numerous partnerships. Pieces of the puzzle continued to assemble and by summer 2015, REACH’s first pilot project was launched with 10 refugee boys in collaboration with a local partner. At the end of each pilot session that summer, the youth would eagerly ask “What next?”

Clear that this model had legs, REACH became an official nonprofit in January 2016. Our mission is in direct response to ongoing gaps in the field of refugee services where agencies are underfunded, schools are under supported, and newcomer families are isolated from mainstream society. While refugee youth adjust and grow, REACH addresses their needs through academic, leadership, and social-emotional learning supports, providing outdoor education opportunities and connections for youth who are at high risk for academic failure, social isolation, school bullying and other issues that threaten their overall well-being. As the REACH family expands, the healing impact of the outdoors is ever present. REACH youth gain access to natural environments and public spaces as well as learning opportunities that they are infrequently invited to as newcomers. We've excitedly witnessed the ripple effect that this exposure inspires, as REACH youth transfer their new knowledge to their family members and friends, future Americans who are learning to love and care for their new home through outdoor stewardship, adventure, and educational experiences.  


REACH'S MISSION is to inspire leadership, academic success, and connections among refugee youth through active dynamic learning outside the traditional classroom.

OUR VISION is to build a sense of place (a connection to self, others, and the environment) and learning through an engaged network of refugee youth, their families, and adult mentors.


REACH's aspirations include:

  1. Build leadership skills​

  2. Enhance outdoor experiences​

  3. Reduce youth isolation​

  4. Expand family activities​

  5. Build practical science and research skills​

  6. Provide career development

We have these long term objectives:

  • Improve health and fitness and demonstrate the benefits of healthy lifestyles by teaching transferable outdoor habits and skills through meaningful experiences.

  • Foster lasting networks of community and cultural connections by enriching relationships among diverse groups.

  • Provide stepping stones for higher education and careers in natural resources, the arts, or the sciences.

  • Enhance knowledge and leadership growth among various age groups, increasing competitiveness for careers in natural resources, the arts, or the sciences.

  • ​Develop awareness and sense of stewardship for public lands among newcomer populations.



​Youth Engaged


Total Camps













Peer Mentor Visioning & Training Sessions


Youth Leaders Trained


Public Speaking Events 


REACH Graduates Enrolled in College


Workshops  & Conferences Attended by REACH Youth


Stewardship & Service Learning Projects

REACH Activities Are Always Growing & Evolving:

  • 9-Square

  • Archery

  • Advocacy Training

  • Backcountry Camping

  • Biking

  • Bouldering

  • Bowling

  • Butt Surfing

  • Cabin Camping 

  • Campfire Building

  • Canoeing

  • Capoeira

  • Coding

  • College Tours

  • Corn Hole / Bean Bag Toss

  • Corn Maze Challenges

  • Crate Stacking

  • Creek Wading

  • Farm Chores

  • Fort Building

  • Fly Fishing / Spin Fishing

  • Forest Restoration 

  • Gaga Ball

  • Gardening Projects

  • Habitat Assessments

  • Hiking

  • High Ropes Courses

  • Horseback Riding

  • Ice Skating

  • Improv Skits

  • Indoor Cooking 

  • Kayaking

  • Low Ropes Challenge Courses

  • Macroinvertebrate Investigations

  • Miniature Golfing

  • Nature Art

  • Nature & Science Museum Visits

  • Nature Scavenger Hunts

  • Night Hikes

  • Obstacle Courses

  • Orienteering

  • Outdoor Cooking

  • Public Speaking & Advocacy

  • Pumpkin Picking

  • River Clean-Ups

  • River Tubing

  • Roller Blading

  • Rowing (Crew)

  • Scootering

  • Slacklining

  • Skiing (Alpine & XC)

  • Snow Snake Game

  • Snow Shoeing

  • Snow Tubing

  • Storytelling

  • Paddle Boarding

  • Surfing

  • Swimming

  • Teambuilding

  • Tent Assembly

  • Tent Camping

  • Theatre Visits & Tours

  • Top-Rope Climbing

  • Trampoline Jumping

  • Frisbee Golf

  • Water Quality Inventories

  • Whitewater Rafting

  • Yoga

  • Ziplining

REACH Impacts Our Youth, Families, Volunteers, and the City, in Many Different Ways:

REACH Board Member Imran Mohammad

Imran Mohammad
REACH  Volunteer

REACH brings the joy of a family to me. When I joined REACH, it was like I found a place to belong. I was a stateless Rohingya refugee and thought that our humanity was divided. I realized by being involved with REACH that our diverse humanity can coexist in harmony. I rejoice the setting that REACH has created for young refugees and asylum-seekers to rebuild their lives. It is a home where I can connect with people who are coming from many parts of the world, have a meal together, laugh together, love and care for each other. 

Refugee Alliance Executive Director Laura Youngberg

Laura Youngberg

Middle Eastern Immigrant & Refugee Alliance

Executive Director

MIRA has been proud to partner with REACH since its founding.  Many of the refugee youth we serve need positive role models and activities to get them out of the house as they adjust to their new lives in Chicago.  REACH is fantastic as a resource to support our youth clients and their families, providing excellent programming that has made a huge difference in their self-esteem, connections, communications, and comfort with new experiences. 

Friends of the Chicago River Ecology Outreach Manager Mark Hauser

Mark Hauser

Friends of the Chicago River 

 Ecology Outreach Manager

REACH is an important partner in Friends’ efforts to improve and protect the Chicago River. They've led others in cleaning the river of trash by serving as a site captain on Chicago River Day. REACH also helped monitor the river’s animal life and water quality, and has taught others about the river at Friends’ Student Congress. They are a shining example that we all have a vested interest in the health of our communities, our river, and in each other.

Our Impact
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