Wild Woman: Wild Hearts Idaho's Maggie Benedetti
Growing up in Boise camping and exploring with her family, Maggie Benedetti was exposed to the outdoors from an early age, an experience she felt really helped her to find herself. Now as a mother herself and living back in Boise, Maggie is the founder and Executive Director of Wild Hearts Idaho, an organization founded to build leadership skills in teens ages 12-18 through outdoor adventure. The girl-focused and girl-led group was founded in 2016 with a hike to Table Rock in Boise. Five girls joined and explored themes like goal-setting, self-esteem, and identifying as a leader. Those original girls came up with the name Wild Hearts to represent being together with other girls and women in the outdoors. Since then, numerous girls in the area have gotten to adventure with Wild Hearts in activities like hiking, backpacking, rafting, snowshoeing, and rock-climbing while developing leadership skills.
Maggie’s background in psychology (she holds a Bachelor's from Loyola Marymount University, a Masters in Social Work and a Certificate in Non-Profit Administration from Boise State University) and social work has drawn her to disrupt systemic oppression, specifically for women, starting with youth.
Tell me about founding Wild Hearts Idaho?
Maggie: I am originally from Idaho; I grew up in Boise. As a young girl, I did a lot of hiking, backpacking, and rafting with my family—mostly with my dad and my brothers. I think those experiences really helped me identify who I was during those teen years realizing my strengths and connecting with the natural world. I graduated with a degree in psychology and came back to Idaho 7 years ago to pursue my master's in social work. Throughout my education and professional experience, I worked primarily in the mental health realm supporting marginalized youth. I had this idea to work in prevention and empowerment instead of crisis management, specifically with women and girls. I took my love for the outdoors and my experience of finding myself through that and combined that with leadership and empowerment to found Wild Hearts. I participated in a Boise State Venture College which is a program for non-business majors who have a business idea to get mentorship and support for building your business model and getting out in the community to see if it’s viable and a need. Doing that really helped me to launch our first pilot trip in 2016 and I had 5 girls participate in that. From that, I asked the girls whether this was something they’d be interested in: spending time outside, learning wilderness skills. They gave me great feedback; from the start, it’s been girl-focused and girl-led and getting a girl’s voice in everything we do. They came up with our name.
Why did you start it? Why do you think it’s important to help Idaho girls develop outdoor skills and leadership skills in the outdoors?
Maggie: I guess from my professional experience, just providing counseling and working with pregnant teens who didn’t have opportunities to be outside whether locally, like hiking Table Rock or floating the Boise River, but also a lot had never been to Bogus Basin. I realized what their concept of nature was but also wanted to open up that concept and introduce them to Idaho’s amazing wilderness areas. Our access here is amazing compared to a lot of places in the world. I wanted them to be able to experience the outdoors, but also after experiencing it and developing that relationship, hopefully, they will engage with their family and friends and work to protect the outdoors in the future.
How do you recruit the girls? Do you go into schools or do the girls find you?
Maggie: It’s kind of a bit of everything. Historically, school outreach has been big. We mostly target the Boise School District and surrounding communities. With COVID, we’re trying to figure out how we do that now; a lot has been word of mouth. A girl will go on an adventure and then bring a friend or sister on the next. We do have mental health professionals and counselors that refer girls sometimes. We also participate in community events like tabling and at gear shops. I guess part of starting it too was to break down any barrier that exists for a girl to be outside and supported in her growth. Any girls ages 12-18 are welcome; all our events are free and there’s no financial barrier—we provide gear if they need it: a water bottle, hiking boots, sleeping bag. We have a gear closet that people have donated gear towards. It continues to grow.
Where do you hope the future takes Wild Hearts Idaho?
Maggie: Ultimately the big vision is to be statewide and have a chapter in eastern Idaho and northern Idaho and Boise and be able to connect girls across the state and introduce girls to various outdoor opportunities. I think that’s one of our main findings within our trips is that girls are meeting other girls from outside their social circles and schools and developing friendships that wouldn’t have happened without Wild Hearts, so if we could do that on a broader, Idaho-wide scale, girls could develop friendships, connect to the outdoors, and learn what it’s like in different parts of the state. It is so drastically different from Boise to even Sun Valley and there’s so much to do. We want to help girls realize that it’s all your opportunity and you can do it.
Are there Wild Hearts employees trained in all the activities or do you partner with organizations?
Maggie: We have our adventure mentor team which is a group of women that changes every year, but some have been with us since the beginning. Last year, 2019, was our biggest year yet; we did 17 trips including our first rock climbing, multi-day rafting, and multi-day backpacking trips. We also had 15 adventure mentors. These are professional women here in the Boise community who volunteer with us. They kind of range in outdoor skill level and experience. We host an adventure training each spring and they sign up for what trips they’re interested in leading. We have 2-3 women on each trip depending on the technicality of trip. For instance, our rock climbing program we partner with local rock climbing gyms to provide those opportunities They sometimes have staff help train and teach different skills. Sometimes a partner would teach some technical rock climbing aspects but leaders would teach more leadership and team-building components. We are primarily volunteer-run.
What’s your relationship to the outdoors? What activities do you like to do?
Maggie: I went to college in LA to play Division I basketball so a lot of my college experience was on the basketball court which I think, in a way, changed my relationship to the outdoors since I was now at the ocean and the beach and very much in a city. But I came to realize post-college after living abroad and in San Francisco for a bit before moving back to Idaho that I’ve always lived by open spaces whether it was just a park or by the ocean. My relationship with the outdoors and desire to be outside as much as possible led me to always find myself by those areas even if not a backcountry setting. I think that in general is what brought me back to Idaho—wanting to be able to access the outdoors on a daily basis whether the Boise river or foothills or the mountains. I’m a new mom so I’m now experiencing the outdoors in a whole new way with my baby daughter and that brings on a whole new realm and experience of learning through her eyes and sharing those experiences with her.
What’s your favorite trail snack?
Maggie: I love LARABARs and ClifBars; they’re always in my pocket as a quick go-to. I hiked the Bighorn Crags last weekend which was my first post-baby backpacking trip and I brought dried mangos and those were like candy. That is my new go-to.