Raise Your Hand Spotlight: Luke O’Neill / American Explorers

We are well on our way to our annual Raise Your Hand campaign goal of $20K goal (that will be matched for a total of $40K). Help us get there by posting a photo of yourself or you and your friends with hands raised to our Facebook page and donating here.
A big thanks to Luke O’Neill of American Explorers for joining our annual Raise Your Hand campaign! Luke is a former program facilitator for Outward Bound Peacebuilding. In addition to leading expeditions for our Palestinian and Israeli Emerging Leaders Program, Luke also managed programs for the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. Earlier this year, he became Executive Director of American Explorers, a new non-profit venture launched by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Using an Outward Bound-inspired approach with expedition-based experiences for youth, American Explorers seeks to identify, train, and support talented young leaders.
What do you like most about your job at American Explorers?

What excites me about American Explorers is the chance to sculpt a program that has the potential to impact the lives of young people, their families, schools and communities in powerful and positive ways.  In my role I also have the unique opportunity to design and cultivate a culture that embodies the values to which we are committed.  In my 25 years with Outward Bound, I have learned how important it is to design a culture that advances the work we do.

Who are your participants?

We select young men and women who are going into the 9th or 10th grades and who have demonstrated leadership abilities and expressed a genuine interest in exploring their potential as leaders.  Students are nominated by a select group of schools and community organizations, e.g., YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs.  Once nominated, students submit an application and participate in an interview process.  Those selected are offered the chance to participate in a 20-day leadership-training program in Paradise Valley, Montana.  At the moment, we are targeting young leaders in both Atlanta and southwestern Montana.

What are some of the unique offerings of your program(s)?

The first phase of our 4-year leadership development program involves a 20-day wilderness-based experience that borrows a great deal from the Outward Bound model.  The similarities are only fitting as both Arthur Blank, the founder, and Luke O’Neill, have 30+ and 25+ years of involvement with Outward Bound respectively.

Are there any positive stories involving youth that have come out of American Explorers’s first nine months?

While we have only recently completed our first summer of operations, the stories that I have heard from our first American Explorers have been both inspiring and heartwarming.  For instance, the father of one of our young students, Armand, shared with me at the end of August that his son returned from his 20 days in Montana with a determination to fill a void at his new high school by starting an ROTC program that would provide many of his fellow students with an opportunity to explore their own potential as leaders.  To his father’s delight and surprise, Armand expanded his goal to include several other schools that were also lacking ROTC programs.

How has your past experience working with Outward Bound Peacebuilding been connected to and helpful for the work you’re doing now?

I reflect upon my work with Outward Bound Peacebuilding a great deal in connection with the development of the American Explorers program model.  This past summer we brought together young people from the inner-city areas of Atlanta and areas in southwestern Montana.  In much the same way as Outward Bound Peacebuilding builds bridges between leaders with differing perspectives, we are exposing young leaders growing up in very different environments and circumstances to one other and offering a platform for finding common ground, developing core leadership skills, and gaining a deep and lasting understanding of the way others approach the world each day.  In addition, we have chosen to work with young leaders as an essential part of the strategy.  Much like Outward Bound Peacebuilding, we believe that leaders shape the world, so focusing our efforts and resources on bringing out the very best in young leaders will have the greatest impact in building healthy, supportive and vibrant learning cultures in communities on every scale.

Why has the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation chosen to fund American Explorers?

Arthur Blank and his family have a long history of supporting efforts to create healthier, supportive and caring environments for children.  American Explorers brings together Arthur’s belief in the enduring power of wilderness-based education, leadership-driven transformation, and expanded opportunities for growth, especially among those where resources are limited.   In addition, Arthur and his family believe that leadership takes time to develop, which is why the American Explorers is based upon a comprehensive four-year model.

What does peace mean to you?

Peace is always present…always just a thought away.  When I think back to my experiences with Outward Bound Peacebuilding, I found peace in a hug, laughter, the firelight glowing with warmth upon the faces of exhausted explorers sharing the highs and lows of an arduous, uplifting day, the sense of awe in reaching the summit together.