Pay it Forward: North Carolina Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission

When Joe Gray was a teen, he took a life-changing senior class trip to Aspen, Colorado.

Gray, who is visually impaired, attended the Tennessee School for the Blind. He traveled with his classmates to Aspen to learn how to ski with the help of instructors and guides.

A Go Outside Grant from the North Carolina Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission allowed four seniors and three staff members from the Governor Morehead School to take a life-changing trip to Aspen last year.

“That ski trip helped me to be more comfortable with my visual impairment and more confident,” Gray said.

To this day, he considers that ski trip integral to helping him understand his own capabilities. Already a high school athlete in both track and field and wrestling at the time, he went on to become a track and field Paralympian with Team USA.

So when Gray came to work as a community employment specialist for North Carolina’s Governor Morehead School, which serves students with visual impairments, he was eager to propose a similar senior class trip. He had the support of the administration, but he needed the funding to get them there.

Thanks to a Go Outside Grant, or “GO Grant,” from the North Carolina Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission, four seniors and three staff members from the Governor Morehead School traveled to Aspen last year.

The trip exemplified the mission of the NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission. In an era when many students spend their time indoors and on screens, the organization wants kids and teens to get outside and connect with nature.

Founded in 2015, the Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission accomplishes that goal by funding trips, projects, and initiatives, according to Alan Pomeroy, program director for the organization.

Thanks to the GO Grant, Governor Morehead students had outdoor experiences and adventures.

GO Grants can be used to support field trips, such as camping, hiking or fishing, he said, as well as to build and maintain structures such as greenhouses or fishing docks, or to purchase equipment like tractors or kayaks.

Any public, private, or charter school or 501(c)(3) nonprofit can apply for a GO Grant, Pomeroy said. While the grants are the organization’s longest running program, they are not its only program.

More recently, the Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission began awarding funds for Trailblazers Outdoor Clubs. More than 80 schools applied last year, with 33 of those awarded $10,000 to form an outdoor club at their school.

As of January 2024, the NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission had awarded funding in 97 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, totaling roughly $7.5 million.

Then there’s the Patch Program for anyone under 18 to apply to receive patches for completing three different outdoor activities, such as archery, horseback riding, or catching fish. The program encourages youth to try different outdoor activities, Pomeroy said.

Through these various initiatives, the NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission touches the lives of young people who already participate in outdoor activities, as well as those who have never tried an activity before and do so thanks to this funding, he said.

Sight guides lead Governor Morehead students through new adventures.

“The most rewarding part is seeing firsthand the impact of the work we’re doing,” Pomeroy said. “It’s just wonderful to see students who have not had opportunities to do these things before be able to do them and realize these experiences are out there.”

Teachers often tell Pomeroy of the challenges of finding funding in this realm. Now he also hears stories of students who discover a passion for something they’ve never tried thanks to Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission funding.

Gray’s experience with the Governor Morehead students speaks to that life-changing effect. Before he found the GO Grant, Gray said he wasn’t sure who would be willing to fund the trip.

“When you talk to some people about fundraising to take these visually impaired students to ski, sometimes people say, ‘Why would you do that?’” he said.

“Sometimes I just have to tell people, I did that. You may think this is impossible, but for my students, this is possible.”

The NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission’s goal is for North Carolina youth to get outdoors and connect with nature — and perhaps try something they’ve never tried before.

The NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission indeed saw it as possible. His students came home from the trip with greater awareness, self-confidence, and an increased ability to advocate for themselves. For many, it was their first time on an airplane, let alone on skis. They stayed in a hotel and had to get themselves ready each day in a new environment. The impact reached far beyond learning to ski, he said.

“They are now more comfortable and confident that their visual impairment is a characteristic of who they are, but it doesn’t define who they are,” Gray said.

The NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission estimates it’s reached more than 270,000 youths across North Carolina. Pomeroy says the benefits extend beyond those who directly receive funding. For example, a community garden can produce food that goes to other students or community members, and new kayaks will serve students for years to come.

Looking ahead, the NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission has a goal to touch the three remaining counties not yet helped by its programs — Caswell, Pamlico, and Anson — and continue to expand awareness about its mission and available funds throughout the state.

The NC Youth Outdoor Engagement Commission is funded in part by the North Carolina General Assembly and through donations. To learn more or support the organization, visit

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