It was 1996, the Internet was starting to boom, and Jerry Casagrande's friends at the Stanford University business school were lining up high-paying jobs at consulting firms and Silicon Valley start-ups.
Planning his own future, Casagrande set up an interview with a company called Amazon. "I was thinking Amazon River, doing something cool with native people," he said.
The company was actually Amazon.com -- "a little bookstore," as Casagrande recalls it -- and Casagrande didn't get a job he probably didn't want anyway. He was moving in a different direction than his classmates, seeking to apply their entrepreneurial spirit with a nonprofit spin that took advantage of his love of nature and appreciation of ethnic diversity.
He found it his way four years ago, opening a summer outdoor education program called 3D Life Adventures that he still runs out of his Alexandria home. It offers a somewhat different twist on traditional programs such as Outward Bound: the 3D teenagers who go backpacking in North Carolina and rafting in Georgia also spend time working at food banks and visiting places such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta. They engage in Socratic-style debates around the campfire about their cultural heritage and how diversity has affected their lives.
And they are just as likely to be African American, Hispanic or Asian as they are to be white.
Casagrande's take on outdoor adventure attempts to acquaint students with different cultures and instill a love for the environment as much as it tries to build self-esteem. And of course, it still emphasizes plain old fun.
In that, 3D stands out in a growing outdoor education industry that serves thousands of students nationwide. "For an organization to focus on this kind of stuff and target minorities and under-represented groups and have participations rates as high as Jerry's, that's a bit unusual,'' said Bill Zimmerman, director of accreditation at the Association for Experiential Education in Colorado.
"If you look at American culture generally, the people historically interested in outdoor adventure, in exploring, are all dead white guys,'' said Zimmerman, whose organization serves educators who don't emphasize traditional book learning. "People in this industry are really struggling to reach out to under-served communities. Some of it is cultural. A lot of this is passed down through families, and if you don't have a tradition of skiing or mountaineering in your family, how will you get exposed to the outdoors?''
Casagrande, 36, didn't exactly grow up in the woods, either. He was raised amid the shopping malls of North Jersey. His father was a successful entrepreneur, starting several computer software companies. Casagrande said that helped plant the entrepreneurial ethic in him, along with providing him some family money he later used to start 3D.
At 15, Casagrande had his first experience with the outdoors: a program exploring the Rocky Mountains recommended by his science teacher. He recently chuckled as he dug up an old article from the school paper in which he was quoted after the trip as saying, "I realized that the western United States isn't just a wasteland.''
"I started to realize how beautiful the natural world is and began wanting to spend more and more time in it,'' recalled Casagrande, who is married and has two children. "I feel very deeply that young people should connect more to the natural world. We spend the bulk of our time as commuters or in shopping malls or in front of the TV, but there is something fundamental, something inherent to being human, about the natural world.''
After graduating from Dartmouth College, Casagrande worked with Vietnamese refugees for the United Nations in Hong Kong. The experience cemented his interest in ethnic diversity, especially when he came back to the United States and was stunned by how little Americans knew about the world.
An idea was born.
"I said one day in 1992 that I wanted to bring together groups of American young people from diverse backgrounds and help them explore different culture and heritages,'' Casagrande said.
Over the next seven years, as Casagrande graduated from Stanford with his MBA and a master's degree in Latin American studies and worked in Mongolia for the World Bank, the idea gradually took shape in his head.
In 1999, Casagrande moved to Northern Virginia, where he had long-standing ties. His mother is from Occoquan, and his aunt lives in Falls Church. He began heading the environmental program at Ashoka, a global nonprofit organization that invests in social entrepreneurship, but left the Arlington office in June 2000 to start 3D.
From the beginning, his vision was somewhat different. Most outdoor education programs, Casagrande said, are either high-priced with no scholarships and attract mostly wealthy white children; high-priced with minimal scholarships that bring in what he considers a few token minorities; or they consist entirely of lower-income children.
"They don't get to see anything beyond their own peer groups,'' he said. "We really try to bring kids in in a balanced fashion.''
To accomplish this, 3D forms partnerships with various community organizations in the Washington area and around the country and sometimes recruits directly in schools. Most important, however, is word of mouth.
Julie Mazakas of Oak Glen, Calif., heard about 3D at a PTA meeting a few years ago when a high school girl showed a video of her expedition. "She was a straight-A student, a brilliant girl, and for her to say such glowing things about this trip made me think, 'Gee, I want my kid to go on that trip,' " Mazakas said.
Mazakas said her son, Greg, was looking for a summer adventure. "Our kids have always gone to private schools and have had a lot of fun things to do over their summers,'' she said. "Greg on some level takes some things for granted.''
After his family researched the program, Greg Mazakas paid the $3,195 tuition for non-scholarship students from money he had saved from his bar mitzvah and from working. With three guides, he set off in July for 24 days backpacking through the Carolinas, rafting and working at a food bank in Atlanta.
His group of high-schoolers consisted of a white boy, an African American boy, two white girls, two Asian girls, an African American girl and a Hispanic girl. "We were all very comfortable around each other, and we're still in touch,'' said Mazakas, 16. "It was like being with a new family.''
Kana Matsui, 17, of Ellicott City, learned about 3D a different way -- when she applied for a summer program at Stanford University. She checked a box saying she'd like to hear about other programs and got an e-mail back about 3D.
"I thought it was really interesting just because of the different components of it, the mixture,'' she said. "The environmental and outdoor parts, along with the cultural part.''
On her trip in July, Matsui visited Cherokee Indians, climbed mountains and stayed at a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina.
She said she particularly liked the evenings sitting in a circle, talking about topics ranging from religious beliefs to "the nature of human interaction." One boy from Sierra Leone talked about how he and his mother had become refugees from the country's civil war.
"He had been through so much. It was really shocking to see,'' Matsui said. "It just broadens your view to hear that. You are so used to living the way you are and you know in your head that it's not like that everywhere else. But the people you go to school with, see and talk to are pretty much the same as you are.''
For other students, 3D can help them cope with problems in their own lives. That was the case for Yesenia Argueta, 16, of the District, according to Desepe de Vargas of the District-based Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center. She is a mentor to Argueta.
When Argueta embarked on a 3D expedition last summer, she was upset over the shooting deaths of four people in her Columbia Heights neighborhood, including her cousin, de Vargas said.
"That was a particularly rough summer for her,'' de Vargas said. "The benefit of 3D was not so much getting her mind off it but sort of stabilizing her environment . . . and giving her hope that there is more beyond this present existence, that you are not boxed in, and that if you are willing to take the risk there's a whole world out there that you can reach for and attain."
For Annie Jonas, 3D's program director, such comments form the core of what she wants students to learn. Jonas, who formerly taught high school and has a master's in education from Harvard University, designed an intensive curriculum that aims to help students better understand diversity, different cultures and "the natural community.''
Jonas oversees the expeditions each summer from her base in Asheville, N.C., because Casagrande thought she was the perfect program director and she couldn't move to the Washington area. Casagrande works out of a small office in his Alexandria home -- the walls are plastered with pictures of 3D students and thank-you letters from them -- and focuses on marketing and fundraising. He goes to North Carolina about every six weeks, usually driving and staying with Jonas to save money.
3D offers two main expeditions each summer: "Carolina Immersion" and "Appalachia to Atlanta.'' Students travel from one location to another in vans, where they are encouraged to read from a traveling "library" of books covering subjects such as new immigrants, natural history and field guides to areas they are exploring. There are seven to 10 kids in a group with two or three adult guides.
Most amenities of modern life, such as cell phones, e-mail devices and Walkmans, are not allowed. The students write letters home and can receive care packages. Guides are equipped with cell phones for emergencies.
"We say, 'Here is 24 days to live a different kind of life,' '' Casagrande said. "When you get home, you can do all those same things again, but for 24 days let's try something different. For 24 days, this is your community.''
With this summer's expeditions, Casagrande said, he has achieved his overall goal of parity among white, black, Asian and Hispanic children. The program has served about 110 children in its four years, about 25 percent from each ethnic group. Tuition is on a sliding scale based on need; the average student pays about 55 percent of the $3,195.
Casagrande acknowledges that the program would need about 125 students a year to break even. He has served about 30 each of the past two years. But even as he wants to expand, he still sees 3D's ultimate role as "a niche player, a smaller educational organization that has a broad impact across the field of outdoor education.''
In the meantime, he makes do through tuition and funds from 150 donors across the country, including about 25 from Northern Virginia.
Two of Casagrande's Alexandria neighbors, Mike and Diane Archer, sponsored a full-tuition student this summer. Mike Archer, who advises Casagrande on how to run the program, said he was impressed by the degree of Casagrande's commitment to his ideals "right down to what he eats, how he buys a car and how he selects a school for his children."
"We like that 3D is reaching into the community and having an impact not only on the neediest of students but also on the more affluent,'' Archer said. "America is this melting pot, but there is still a need to understand your roots, your influences and your traditions.''