Go out and play

REI's former CEO puts his money
where his heart is

Ben Marks

What happens when the head of the world's largest recreational gear and clothing store decides to focus all his energy on getting kids passionate about the outdoors? Dennis Madsen, the former president and CEO of REI who recently retired after 39 years with the company, is about to find out with the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund, a group he created to support volunteer-driven organizations that get kids outside.

"When I used to come home from school, I would throw down my books and announce to my mother that I was going to play in the woods behind our house," says Madsen, whose love of the outdoors led him to answer an ad for part-time sales help at REI during his senior year at West Seattle High School. "Today, kids come home and announce that they are going to get on the computer. The whole paradigm has shifted as kids look to entertainment as a pastime."

Madsen isn't willing to accept this change. He's worried about childhood obesity and the lower activity levels that contribute to it. He's especially frustrated about the way computer and video games foster inactivity―games that are ironically based on physical sports like snowboarding and basketball. "I'm glad that they are highlighting the thrill that being outdoors can provide," he says of these games, "but I think where it tends to fall down is the way it's used."

A way to build self-esteem
All true enough, but one might wonder why Madsen wasn't content just to do his part by selling REI gear that, in theory, would inspire families to get outside. He was, after all, extremely successful in his years at REI, growing the company from 1 store in Seattle (in 1966, when he joined the company) to 77 stores around the country. So why the career change?

"I can't imagine having worked for a better company and being associated with better people," he says. "I want to replicate that somehow for others."

Specifically, Madsen wants to reach "urban kids and inner-city kids who don't have nature proximate to them," as he puts it. His new program will help pair these kids with volunteer groups that make it possible for them to experience nature in meaningful ways. For Madsen, this idea has powerful resonance: It was, after all, a volunteer scouting leader who got him forever hooked on the outdoors.

"Pushing physical limits does so much to increase a kid's self-confidence," Madsen says. He has seen firsthand that children are looking for a sense of identity and a way to express themselves. That's why completing a tough hike or making it all the way to the ceiling of a climbing gym are the sorts of experiences that help kids gain self-esteem.

"The outdoors supplies physical, spiritual, and emotional benefits to kids," Madsen says. "It's not the silver-bullet answer, but it is one answer."

It's an answer that Madsen is willing to bet on. His goal is to build a $5 million endowment, which will permit his fund to grant roughly $250,000 per year to organizations like EarthCorps, Outward Bound Adventures, and Trips for Kids. Madsen has kicked in $250,000 of his own, convinced the North Face to match that amount, and received a commitment from REI for another $750,000.

"I am struck by all the tremendous passion that there is out there," Madsen says. "There are so many volunteers doing so many things for kids, like my troop leader did for me."

INFO: To learn more about the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund, or to contribute to its efforts, visit www.youthoutdoorslegacyfund.com or call 206/713-1821.

Start 'em young

Dennis Madsen is not a child psychologist, but he does play one at home―his daughters are in their late 20s, and he's already a doting grandparent. How did he get his children to share his love of the outdoors? Here are a few of Madsen's home-tested strategies.

Start early. "I got my daughters into the outdoors―backpacking and skiing―when they were 3- and 5-year-olds."

Let children choose. "Valerie is a beautiful skier, but Marcie is a cyclist because she didn't want to compete with her older sib. They each charted their own course."

Listen to your kids. "Find out what interests them and take cues from that. What are their friends doing? Would they like to do something with their friends?"

Mix it up. "Expose them to a broad range of activities. Take a hike one day, a beach walk the next, visit a climbing gym another."

Keep it simple. "Especially for young ones, establish short, attainable goals, even if it's just hiking to a tree before stopping for M&M's."

Have fun. "If there's a mud puddle on the trail, let them jump up and down in it. Get dirty!"