Resident promotes inclusivity with new outdoor initiative

by Laura Bednar

Kara Lapso has been outdoorsy most of her life, but realized other people may not have the same opportunity to experience the great outdoors.

Her new nonprofit, “Open Trail Collective,” aims to “create inclusive and empowering events dedicated to connecting every body and the outdoors. … [and] break down barriers by providing a welcoming space for every body to embrace the transformative power of outdoor adventure together.”

Lapso, a Bath resident, said most of her outdoor adventures have been done alongside a man, whether it was a father, brother or significant other. She learned how to be safe when exploring outside, but said friends of a different race or background may have barriers outdoors.

Examples she gave: someone with a chronic disease concerned about being too far from home; a Latino friend uncomfortable because she didn’t see people of her ethnicity in the park; and her nephew who has cochlear implants and may need to charge the cochlear processors during a long trek.

Lapso said she has seen people break through their barriers. “I’m eager to work with those who don’t have the knowledge or resources to get out,” she said.

She tested her idea last year by inviting mothers to hike and bike New River Gorge in West Viriginia. Lapso said one participant said it was great to “do things with no pressure,” like someone with more experience hovering or judging a novice.

A soft launch took place earlier this year in Lapso’s backyard, where she and four women hiked, practiced tent assembly, outdoor cooking and talked about camping gear while brainstorming other Collective adventures.

In April, Lapso led a group of 15 girls on a hike through New River Gorge and also met some of the Collective’s partners.

“Other organizations are doing similar things so we can ‘collectively’ do things together,” said Lapso. “We blend resources and knowledge.”

The original thought was to make the Collective an all-women’s group, but Lapso said some of her friends in the LGBTQ+ community said they may not feel comfortable with that.

Said Lapso, “Open Trail Collective is open to everybody. The more we mix groups, the more we can build bridges.”

The Collective has a national board of directors offering expertise and obtaining funding. A female Latina member in Colorado works with students in the Denver schools. An African American and Venezuelan doctor in Maryland connects Lapso with the African American community. The third board member is a white-water rafting coach in West Virginia who connects Lapso with active adventure groups.

Lapso is a social worker with a background in international development and disaster relief. She has visited 25 countries that endured a tragedy as part of a nonprofit called ShelterBox. “I’ve been in places after a typhoon when there is no infrastructure left,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to be in an uncomfortable situation.”

She has also spent time as a youth rock-climbing teacher in Chicago. Lapso and her family moved to Bath right before the pandemic. Her hope is to highlight the parks and outdoor opportunities Ohio has to offer.

“I would love to connect more locally and with underrepresented groups,” said Lapso.

The Collective’s first hiking event took place May 24 at the Seiberling Nature Realm. The plan is to hold most events in Ohio, with one out-of-state trip every year.

Future plans

Open Trail Collective events will include hiking, biking, rock climbing and kayaking. Lapso said people do not need experience to attend an event.

“The majority of events are low key, and we can scale the event to people’s needs if we know in advance,” she said.

In addition, Lapso plans to incorporate a gear swap, where people can trade and give away things like backpacks, water bottles, shoes and tents. She will also offer information on how people can minimize risk to themselves and the environment when navigating the outdoors.

The nonprofit’s website shows a late June kayaking trip along the Cuyahoga River with members of Black Women Explore and led by the ecotourism company Float the River. In September, the Collective will travel to New River Gorge in West Virginia for a multi-sport adventure weekend.

Other events in the works are family hikes and a wilderness first-aid training seminar in late fall or early winter.

In the meantime, Lapso and her board members continue to obtain funding, which goes towards events, gear and other expenses. Businesses or other organizations can sponsor an activity to reduce the cost for participants. There have been 20 sponsors that provided in-kind donations of sunscreen and bug spray to go in the Collective’s adventure kits.

Lapso said she hopes to have enough money to sponsor a bus or Uber ride for those who have difficulty traveling to an event. She said there are many other outdoor adventure groups in the Akron and Cleveland areas and in the next five years, she hopes to bring them together.

“[The Collective] bridges cultures, brings people together and creates a place for people to meet,” said Lapso. “I’m eager to connect with communities that are excluded or intimidated by the outdoors to adventure together in a judgment-free zone.”

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Lapso teaches her fellow campers how to pitch a tent in the wilderness. Photo by Mallory Riley Photography.

On our cover (photo): Resident Kara Lapso (left) takes a group of women on a hiking trip as the first event of her new initiative “Open Trail Collective,” which provides opportunities for all people to experience the outdoors in a judgment-free environment. Photo by Mallory Riley Photography.