Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 12:47 pm | Fog/Mist 67º


Supporters Hit the Trail for Hike for AHA!

Hikers help raise funds for the nonprofit's in-school, after-school and summer programs for at-risk teens in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria

A record number of hikers took to the trails on Saturday for the third annual Hike for AHA!, which raised money to support AHA’s in-school and after-school programs for at-risk teens in Santa Barbara.

Laura Johnston, left, and Debby Peterson, two of the organizers of the Hike for AHA! on Saturday. (Julia Rodgers / Noozhawk photo)

More than 100 adults and teens trekked together for seven miles on the hot and sunny Romero Canyon Trail and then celebrated with a barbecue lunch at a nearby Montecito estate.

“The hike is just the first part of the climb,” said Dr. Jennifer Freed, co-founder and co-executive director of AHA! “We are going to transform this community. These young people are ready to make a difference.”

AHA!, which stands for Attitude, Harmony, Achievement, is a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit. It teaches social emotional learning to 3,500 teens each year through in-school, after-school and summer programs in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria. Teens learn how to become powerful forces against bullying and prejudice, how to manage adversity, and how to develop positive attitudes and empathy.

The nonprofit organization is trying to raise enough money to continue and expand its Peace Builders program at all three Santa Barbara high schools. Led by facilitators from AHA!, the students who participate in Peace Builders learn how to interrupt bullying behavior and instead create an inclusive and safe campus culture.

In an exciting turn of events, an anonymous donor surprised the event organizers during the barbecue by offering to match all gifts up to $50,000 that are given to AHA! by Nov. 22, two weeks from the date of the hike. For those who missed the hike but would like to contribute towards the matching grant, gifts can still be donated online by clicking here.

“I was stunned,” said Beryl Kreisel, president of the AHA! board of directors, who said the anonymous donor was a past supporter. “She was waiting to see if we could deliver results on Peace Builders, and now we have done just that.”

Teens participating in Peace Builders and AHA!’s other programs laughed and chatted easily with each other and adults during the barbeque lunch after the hike, and recalled how much AHA! has changed their lives.

“The best friends I’ve made are through AHA!,” said one Santa Barbara High School senior girl, who has participated in AHA! for three years and hopes to attend UC Santa Cruz next year. “I can really trust the facilitators. I have such a good support system because of AHA! We want to give to others that same support system.”

Her best friend sitting next to her agreed. “It has made me want to be more involved with my community,” said a SBHS junior, who has already recruited her freshman niece to be a part of AHA! “I want to make sure people are included and no one feels left out.”

AHA! board members Angel Martinez, left, and Bobby Shand at the Hike for AHA! (Julia Rodgers / Noozhawk photo)

San Marcos High School students said they, too, have met a lot of friends through AHA!, and they also credited the organization with helping them get better grades.

“I don’t think I would have done this outing three years ago,” said a San Marcos High School junior, who said he has met a lot of friends through AHA! “Before I started AHA!, I didn’t have much motivation to get out.”

“I’ve come out of my shell,” said another high school boy, who said he previously skipped school a lot. “AHA! helps motivate me to go to school because if I don’t go to school, I’ll miss my AHA! class.”

AHA! was founded over 15 years ago by Dr. Freed and Rendy Freedman, both licensed psychotherapists, educators and certified mediators. AHA!’s programs are funded by private donations and grants; families are not turned away for lack of ability to pay.

Sponsors of the Hike for AHA! include Deckers Outdoor Corp., Lululemon Santa Barbara, Brad Lemons/Brad Lemons Foundation, Elizabeth Stegall, Vivienne Leebosh, Be Green Packaging, and The Peterson Group, among others. The South Coast Kiwanis Club donated the barbecue lunch, and KeVita donated sparkling beverages.

Unlike other nonprofits in town, AHA! does not plan an elaborate gala, choosing instead to hold two events a year that expose supporters to the AHA! teenagers being helped by the program. In addition to the hike, its spring event is called “Sing It Out!” About a dozen teens use singing to conquer fear, culminating in a performance in front of an adoring audience of AHA! supporters.

“We would rather wear hiking boots than high heels,” said MaryAnne Contreras, who along with Laura Johnston and Molly Green served as co-chairs of the Hike for AHA! “The students’ achievements are our focus.”

New this year was an option to form a “community challenge” team. Three local companies — Be Green, Find the Best and Lululemon — participated as a team, as well as teams of parents and students from Crane Country Day School and Laguna Blanca School.

For more information about AHA! or Peace Builders, visit the website by clicking here or contact Molly Green, director of development, at 805.770.7200.

— Julia Rodgers is a Noozhawk contributing writer and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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