Area youth experience trip of a lifetime thanks to AYOU

Wanda Burnett

“Never ending awesomeness,” were words used to describe a recent trip area youth took to the Yellowstone National Park.

Ethan Back, Stephan Horne and Darren Gibbs were three students from South Ripley who were fortunate to be chosen for the inaugural trip sponsored by American Youth Outreach Unlimited, Inc., a non-profit organization begun by Kendall Hankins and Jim Waldo.

The three boys were accompanied by Hankins, Waldo and Anthony Mathias, a senior at South Dearborn, who coordinated the trip.

While the journey to Yellowstone was a new experience for the three chosen boys, it has been a lifetime of learning for Hankins, who travels to study the wonders of the park at least 30 times a year. He would go more if his job permitted!

The group presented video, photos, and gave speeches about their trip to the Versailles Lions Club last week. The club was one of their sponsors and members were anxious to hear about what happened.

Jim Waldo told the Lions how the group came to be. He told how he was golfing with Kendall Hankins and they struck up a conversation. Pretty soon the two knew they had a lot in common. The next step was a trip to Yellowstone National Park, which was a joy for both, as they are avid photographers. Then they took it to the next level. Wouldn’t it be great to share this with as many people as possible, especially teenage boys? The question became a reality and this spring the first trip under the name of the new organization AYOU was taken.

This trip was provided to youth who maybe couldn’t afford it otherwise. AYOU pays all expenses for this “trip of a lifetime.” They are encouraged and given tips on photography, and given a day dedicated to each boy's interest alone. It isn’t described as a vacation, but rather an educational based program.

The boys agreed there wasn’t much time for sleeping, and said that would be the only downside to the ten day trip. Even that wasn’t enough to keep them all from going again if given the opportunity, they shared.

South Ripley High School was chosen as the first school for candidates to be selected from. They had to first express an interest and then write an essay. Six applied, Back and Horne were chosen. Hankins and Waldo reserve the right to select the third candidate and Gibbs was chosen.

When the boys were called to the principal’s office before the end of the school last year, they all were wondering what they had done. Back said he sat in the office looking at the others, thinking, “what in the world could this be about?” Horne said he thought, “What did I do?” He said he never thought he would be chosen.

They would soon learn they had been chosen for the expense paid trip they had written their essays about. They embarked on their journey on July 4 at 6:30 p.m. and drove 27 hours to reach their destination. They slept in a tent, and were at one with nature throughout their stay.

“We saw things people don’t usually see,” noted Waldo, as he told about wolves and grizzly bears having a confrontation, and many other wildlife encounters.

The boys described the trip saying they liked the wildlife the best. They were up very close and personal with more than 80 grizzly bears, saw numerous bison, “really big bison,” coyotes, otters, prong horns, mountain goats, and much, much more. The boys described the buffalo as four times as big as the ones seen here.

They enjoyed the scenery, waterfalls and Old Faithful, but the wildlife was their favorite part.

The group arrived to find about one inch of snow the first night, and up to about 74 degrees in the daytime. They would learn about the importance of the intact ecosystem the park shows, and how rapidly weather can change. They would also learn about animal patterns from observing.

The group would get up about 5:15 a.m. each day, because if you didn’t, you would miss something, according to them.

The young men said they came away with a better understanding of how everything is “out there in the world.” They noted they met people from all different walks of life - even someone from Sunman!

When Lion member Wayne Asche asked if the boys would have liked to spent more time there, the answer was instant, “Oh, yes, definitely.”

The boys will now be required to not only give presentations about their trip, but to write a summary essay about the journey. They will also complete a poster board sized project describing their trip for display.

The organization that was born from a love to share nature with others, is still in growing stages. In talking with others at Yellowstone, there is a possibility of arranging trips to coincide with others from various places, and meeting up for a larger group. This year only boys were taken from South Ripley. Future plans are to take girls and include other area schools.

The 2.2 million acres of mountainous prairie paradise full of wildlife, and scenery even a picture worth 1000 words can’t describe is waiting for anyone who would be so lucky to make the trip. Even if you can’t or don’t want to go, you can make a donation to this group to give a kid the chance of a lifetime.

The organization’s mission is to give today’s youth a vision for tomorrows wildlife preservation and community outreach through education and adventure.

Waldo and Hankins are gearing up for next year’s trip when they can take others to share the experience. The group’s motto, “It’s All About You!” is true. Waldo told the Lions Club members, “It’s all about these kids...they’re our next greatest generation.”
To find out more about this group or to donate you can contact Hankins, who is the president, at 812-756-2339 or 812-689-0220 or email him at Waldo can be contacted at 812-689-5691 or by email at:

The abovephoto shows all those who took the recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. Pictured from left are: Ethan Back, Stephan Horne, and Darren Gibbs, all AYOU trip recipients, Jim Waldo, AYOU vice president; Anthony Mathias, trip coordinator, and Kendall Hankins, AYOU president. See The Versailles Republican for more photos.