Take a Sabbatical to Help America’s National Parks

The startup Amble offers monthlong programs connecting creative professionals with needy park nonprofits

Amble is launching a program next month at Glacier National Park in Montana. (Heath Korvola/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

It was 2015, and Ilyssa Kyu was burned-out. After years of working at design agencies, the Philadelphia native needed a break from staring at a computer screen. So she asked her employer for a “sabbatical” and spent a month at Yosemite.

“The experience was really rejuvenating for me,” she says. “I returned to work with a better attitude and perspective, and finished all my work a bit differently.”

That sabbatical was the spark that would eventually become Amble, a startup that links creative professionals with the nonprofit conservancies that support national parks. Kyu aims to give “creatives”—graphic designers, illustrators, content strategists, copy writers, social media experts, videographers and others—a reinvigorating career break that allows them to give back to the world.

Participants must first have permission from their bosses—this isn’t about quitting your job and jumping into the abyss. Selected applicants pay a fee that goes towards housing and program fees; while the fees will vary depending on the program and type of housing, previous fees have been $1,400. Then they head for the wilderness. They spend about a third of their time working with a park conservancy, doing anything from redesigning websites to illustrating brochures. The rest of the time they spend immersed in nature—hiking, climbing or simply relaxing. In return for their work, participants get annual park passes, guided hikes and more.

Launched in 2018, Amble has run two monthlong programs so far—one at Yosemite and one in the Sierra Foothills—and will start a third, at Glacier National Park, next month. Kyu intends to organize three programs a year, one each in spring, summer and fall. Participants—around 10 per program—spend the first week of their sabbatical assessing needs at the nonprofits, then dedicate the rest of the retreat to working on those needs.

“All the projects have been very beneficial and impactful, but it’s the process that has been most impactful,” she says.

In addition to professional design and artwork, nonprofits often need help with things like content strategy and branding—giving the organization a clear and coherent "voice" to connect with the public. But they often "don’t really know the extent of how creative people can help them," Kyu says.

Bridget Fithian, executive director of the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, says she didn’t understand the importance of professional design work before working with Amble. Those things are often seen as an unnecessary luxury of wealthy for-profit businesses, but something a nonprofit like Fithian’s conservancy can skip. The experience with Amble changed her thinking.

“I was very impressed with the caliber of the content developed by the professionals,” she wrote in a statement. “I was particularly impressed with how deeply they engaged with our organization's goals and systems and how astute their observations and recommendations were. The insight and guidance provided by the Amble cohort will be directly implementable for our organization."

The term ‘sabbatical’ has traditionally been associated with university professors, who are often granted an occasional semester or a year of teaching leave to write a book or do other career-related research. But career breaks have become more common outside academia in recent years. Companies from REI to Intel to accounting firm PwC to the Cheesecake Factory offer employees extended leaves every five or seven or 10 years. Some research suggests that this can be good for not just the employee, but the company, which benefits from a better-rested, more dedicated worker. One study showed that 87 percent of sabbatical-takers surveyed said they had "increased job confidence" after their leave, and a third said the sabbatical allowed them to stay in their job longer than they'd originally planned. A sabbatical can also be a good time for a company to “stress test” its organizational chart.

“Ideally, no team should be so dependent on any one person that productivity grinds to a halt during an extended vacation,” writes management expert David Burkus in the Harvard Business Review. “And while it may look good on paper, the only way to know for sure is to test it.”

To Kyu, Amble is a way of letting people scratch the “quit my job and backpack around Asia” itch, something unobtainable to most people, who need or even like their jobs but simply need some time off to recharge.

Sarah Dzida, a user experience and content strategist, came across Amble on an online networking group when it was brand-new. She signed on to spend a month working with the Mariposa County Arts Council, an arts nonprofit in the California county that contains much of Yosemite. She helped the organization improve their user outreach.

“I knew nothing about it or the people behind it. It was nerve-racking. But I'm so glad I took the leap,” wrote Dzida in a statement. The program helped her reignite her professional passion, she says, and she continues to do pro bono work with the Mariposa County Arts Council on the side.

For Kyu, her initial Yosemite sabbatical led her to take a second career break, to research and write a book. Called Campfire Stories, it's a collection of short stories, songs and legends from six of America's national parks.

"It was such a life-changing experience to be able to pursue that book and that project," she says. "I worked at a computer 9 to 5, and it was like 'butt in the seat sit in front of the computer,' so it was really fulfilling to be able to drive across the land.... We just get caught up in the grind of work, and we don’t give ourselves space to think and create."

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