An interview with Outside Virginia founder, Tee Clarkson
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article written by Eric Gasa
Tee Clarkson has always had a penchant for the outdoors. Growing up in Richmond, VA his parents pretty much sent he and his two brothers into the wilderness to find something to do. Of course they played sports but they also found pleasures in the simple things, like the cool chill of farm ponds on a hot summer day, spending afternoons fishing along the James River.
Clarkson lived the quintessential life of the American boy ala an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. As he became an adult he looked back to his idyllic childhood and imagined facilitating the same for a new generation. Today, he is the founder of Virginia Outside, an organization that has since introduced thousands of kids across the country to the magic of the great outdoors.
For the Life in Motion podcast, Clarkson sits down with Jeremy Lux to discuss his journey from being an English teacher to conservationist, sharing the joys of nature, and why it’s never too late to do what you love.
“I’ve always been a big believer in following your passions and letting them dictate what happens next,” says Clarkson, “And for myself, that ultimately led me into a career in the outdoors.”
Before he was out teaching kids how to fish and kayak, Clarkson was a high school English teacher for 13 years. After a few years of teaching, he got the idea of running a summer camp. He rang up a best friend and former high school English teacher, then started taking kids out to the river one summer.
Those days were the unwitting beginning of Virginia Outside. 15 years later and the program has steadily grown from Virginia to North Carolina, and even some traveling camps that leave the country. After that initial spark though, things started to pick up for Clarkson. His community work didn’t go unnoticed and he got picked up as an outdoor columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch.
“I was writing 15 or 20 articles a year then all of a sudden I was a regular journalist with two columns a week. I did that for five years and that sort of let me transition out of the classroom and into a full-time stint working outdoors,” Clarkson shares.
Now on its 16th year, Virginia Outside is as popular as ever. One cool thing about being around for nearly a whole generation is that former campers are now returning to the program as counselors and teachers themselves. Clarkson looks back at his former campers with a happy reverence.
“They graduate college, start coming back as counselors, and before you know it they’re driving vans and taking kids out to the river. And that’s just a really, really cool thing,” he shares.
Passed down from one generation to the other, it seems that Virginia Outside will be around for a long time thanks to its cyclical membership and dedication to youngsters. Even with its all success, the program started with pure and simple intent.
“I always wanted to create the camp that I wish had been around when I was a kid,” Clarkson says, “That was kind of how we started, with a focus on fishing…I’ve always looked at fishing as like a lifetime sport; if you learn young enough then it’s something you can do your whole life.”
Virginia Outside’s mission suggests the age old proverb of teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime, except they go even further than just fishing. Clarkson shares how the program has expanded to included mountain biking, kayaking, and plenty of other outdoor skills that will have lasting memories.
When he looks back at his career Clarkson can’t help but feel tired but proud. There are days where he’s sunburnt, exhausted, and just wants to spend sometime in the AC, but in the end he’s happy with the work that he’s done. But Clarkson also warns to give your passions some time to breathe.
“I’ve always followed my passion and made a living doing it, but I’ve also changed along the way. I stepped away from teaching English to run the camp and become a columnist, but I got pretty burnt out doing two articles a week. Sometimes you need to diversify. If you’re at risk at destroying your passion, sometimes you got to step away and do something else for a while.” he says.
But above all, Clarkson enjoys seeing the confidence grow in these kids in real time. Not very often in life do you get the opportunity to fish eight hours a day five days a week! But what he really loves is seeing kids leave camp with a newfound love and passion for the outdoors and park system.
In a way, Clarkson is raising up future lifelong conservationists; one fishing trip after another, one camper at a time.
For more info on Virginia Outside and enrollment, check out their website www.virginiaoutside.com as well as the org’s socials on Facebook and Instagram. And of course, for the full story on Tee Clarkson and his time outdoors, listen to his full interview with Jeremy Lux on the Life in Motion podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.