Charitable vanlife: Coronado native raises thousands for nonprofit

Morgan Willis sits atop his 2000 VW Eurovan Camper.
Morgan Willis sits atop his 2000 VW Eurovan Camper.
(Morgan Willis)

Morgan Willis raised $4,000 for Outdoor Outreach, which gives kids chance to explore outdoors


When the pandemic forced Morgan Willis to cancel his post-college graduation European trip, the Coronado native bought a camper van, drove north and climbed a mountain.

Along the way, he wrote about his travels and raised thousands of dollars for Outdoor Outreach, a San Diego-based nonprofit that connects underprivileged children with the outdoors. Willis had interned for the nonprofit the last two years.

“Working there really helped me fall back in love with the outdoors,” he said.

So, after graduating from Arizona State University, Willis put his job search on hold – the companies he’d applied to had enacted hiring freezes – and started preparing the fundraising trip that would take him to the top of Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

He spent weeks researching camper vans (he ended up going with a 2000 Euro Camper), and buying things such as solar panels to ensure he had electricity to do some freelance marketing work during the trip.

“The thing about being stuck inside during quarantine was that I had a lot of time to plan all of this,” he said.

Meanwhile, the staff at Outdoor Outreach set up a donations page for the fundraiser.

The nonprofit has been around for 30 years and has helped connect more than 15,000 kids to outdoor opportunities in the region’s beaches, mountains and hiking trails.

Staff instructors and volunteer mentors work specifically with children from some of San Diego’s most underserved communities. Children who participate in the nonprofit’s programs often struggle with poverty, homelessness, neighborhood violence, and exposure to substance abuse. Despite living in an internationally renowned tourist destination, many of them have never been to the ocean, said Annie Sawyer, the nonprofit’s senior director of development.

Outdoor Outreach’s goal is to help these children build confidence through the outdoor programs, where they learn how to face challenges and learn new skills in different environments.

“We know that those vulnerable kids can be so easily defined by their perceived limitations, so we use the outdoors as a hook to flip that narrative,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer is particularly proud of the fact that most of the nonprofit’s mentors participated in the program when they were kids. That’s important because children going through the program now have mentors that not only look like them, but also have shared life experiences.

“One of the big barriers to participation from kids of low-income communities is that they don’t really see people who look like them in the outdoors,” she said. “They don’t feel like they belong in these outdoor spaces. We work to dismantle the notion that ‘the beaches and trails and mountains aren’t for people like me.’”

Morgan Willis atop Mount St. Helens.
Morgan Willis atop Mount St. Helens.
(Morgan Willis)

Outdoor Outreach was founded by Chris Rutgers, a professional skier based in Utah who had a troubled childhood. Rutgers credits the outdoor community with changing his life and after a back injury forced him to retire from skiing, he decided to give other kids that same opportunity.

So, he looked at a map of the country for a place where he could do outdoor activities year-round and decided to start the nonprofit in San Diego.

Rutgers started out by going to schools and asking to take the students surfing or rock climbing.

Now the nonprofit works with several schools, runs summer camps, and partners with youth-serving organizations like San Diego County Probation and Rady’s Children Hospital.

It organizes surfing, skiing, camping, hiking and climbing trips — at least it did before the pandemic.

In March the coronavirus forced the nonprofit to temporarily suspend in-person programs and, as businesses closed, funding decreased. They still organize virtual programs and limited outdoor trips.

So, Sawyer was particularly happy to hear about Willis’ idea of a fundraising trip.

“Fundraising for us is more important than ever because there is so much uncertainty,” she said. “We don’t exist without fundraising.”

Willis reached the top of Mount St. Helens last month. It took him more than three hours to get to the top and another five hours to get down.

“It was incredible, really amazing to be at the top,” he said. “I woke up early that morning, got on the trail by 5 a.m. and was one of the first people to summit.”

Willis could see smoke rising from the crater of the volcano that last erupted in 1980 and, because it was a clear day, he could see Mount Rainier 85 miles away.

But he was most excited about raising more than $4,000 for Outdoor Outreach.

Willis is now somewhere in the forests of the North Cascades National Park, heading south back to Coronado, and hopes to head out on another trip soon. But nothing is set in stone.

“If there’s one thing I’ve really learned is that you can’t plan too much,” he said.