Adventure—for adults and children alike—challenges what we consider possible and uncovers a resilience we didn’t know we had. Think of the first time you summited a mountain, rode your first wave, or skied your first downhill: when the fear and exhilaration subside, you’re left with the feeling of accomplishment and a resolute “I can do this” that carries back into your daily life.

When it comes to witnessing a loved one go through a life-changing medical diagnosis, that feeling may seem far-off; an experience that is often magnified for a child trying to understand and make sense of a situation seemingly unnavigable. Luckily, there are support programs out there to help those wading through this uncharted territory. This is where non-traditional therapeutic programs like Camp Casco and On Belay come in: to connect children to fun and adventure in a supportive environment tailored to their current experience.

We recently connected with EMS Portsmouth Store Guide Mason Burke, who serves as the Program Director for On Belay, to learn more about the unique therapeutic milieu offered by the adventure programs and the sense of community they provide to young people impacted by a loved one’s cancer. On Belay provides free adventure-based programs to build connection and community among youth who have a loved one who has or has had cancer and encourage participants to uncover their inner resilience.

Mason’s passion for developing young people’s sense of confidence and leadership was evident in our discussions, and we were very excited to learn more about their programs and what they have in store this year. We were joined by Executive Director Madeline Brooks, whose social work background serves as an important tool in the organization’s impactful work. On Belay is now a Register Donation partner at our Portsmouth, NH location, so consider donating and learn more in our conversation below.

goEast: Mason and Madeline, thank you for joining me today! Can you tell us more about On Belay’s background, and how it came to be?

Madeline: On Belay was founded in 2004 by a Durham, NH resident, Crescentia, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, she had two young and adventurous girls for whom traditional group therapy was not a good fit. It was important to Crescentia that she support her children the best she could during what would be a difficult time however, she could not find any non-traditional support groups for children impacted by a parent’s cancer. That is when she decided to start her own program, On Belay. On Belay’s first program was held in June 2004 at the University of New Hampshire’s Browne Center challenge course with 18 participants. Since that first program the organization has grown to serve youth impacted by a loved one’s cancer (not just kids with parents with cancer), provide an average of fifteen programs a year, and are serving over 150 kids annually.

goEast: Where are you based, and where are your programs located?

Mason: On Belay is based out of the town of Newmarket, NH, but our programs take place across NH, ME, and MA. As Madeline mentioned, our programs started small and local but have expanded to Portland, ME, and Boston, MA. We do our best to put on programs close to cancer centers to provide easier transportation for families who have moved to be closer to medical treatment.

goEast: Can you talk about the programs you have for 2023? Do you work with partners on these?

Mason: I am working hard to increase the number of programs we offer and the number of kids we serve. This year we’re putting on 15 programs, and our goal is to reach 200 kids. As I mentioned, we run programs all over the Northeast, and we are extremely lucky to work with many wonderful organizations that help make this possible. We work with indoor climbing gyms, like NH Climbing and Fitness in Concord, and adventure challenge courses like Project Adventure in Beverly, and Rippleffect in Portland, ME, yearly. We are incredibly lucky to have almost twenty years of partnership with many of these outdoor organizations. We have also recently added surfing and canoeing to our program offerings in partnership with the Cinnamon Rainbows and the AMC. I have thoroughly enjoyed working and deepening connections with so many people in the outdoor industry. I have been so refreshed by the attention and dedication these organizations have given to On Belay kids.

Activities range from indoor and outdoor climbing to adventure courses, kayaking, and overnight trips. Photo Courtesy of On Belay/Rooted in Light Media

goEast: Can you talk a little more about the overnight programs?

Mason: During the summer, we offer two opportunities for middle and high-school-aged participants to live outdoors for multiple days. We call them Basecamp and the Teen Outdoor Adventure. Participants learn backcountry skills like fire building and Leave No Trace principles and also get to enjoy multiple days of activities like hiking in the Whites, canoeing on mountain lakes, mountain biking, and swimming in chilly (but refreshing) mountain water. Last summer, one participant voiced some nervousness about a 4000-foot hike in the White Mountains we had planned the next day. I told him he was absolutely, totally, 150% capable of hiking that mountain. We summited the peak together as a whole group after a slow, but steady climb up the trail the next day. I was proud of his accomplishment, but more importantly, he felt empowered and self-confident. Overall, the overnight trips are a blast, and they give a chance for our kids to jell with each other and bond in a safe and supportive environment.

goEast: What would you say are the biggest effects made by On Belay?

Madeline: I think the biggest impact our programs make is helping kids realize that they are not alone. If you have a loved one diagnosed with cancer and you are in elementary or middle school you likely don’t know anyone else who is in the same situation as you. Your friends don’t understand what you are going through and they don’t know what to say to you. Then, you enter an On Belay program and every single kid there gets it without you having to say a word. That is huge for our kids. After their first program, most of our kids first and foremost emphasize how much fun they had! We get the pleasure of giving these kids experiences that they often would not otherwise have access to and we make it fun! Almost all of our first time kids share that they made a new friend at the program, feel better afterwards, and want to come back again!

goEast: Do you see returning participants each year? Can you speak to the long-term takeaways of the program?

Mason: It is different for each participant. Cancer journeys are dynamic and ever-changing. The reality is that some kids won’t be able to attend forever because of health-related circumstances that are totally out of their control. Some participants choose to be involved in just a handful of programs, or they come to the programs that they like the most each year. However, it is incredible to see the impact and personal growth of participants who attend every program each year. They welcome new kids into the group and help share what On Belay is all about. This mix of returners and new families contributes to the strong community support system we provide.

My goal is that youth are empowered and inspired by learning what they are capable of. I hope that participants stay for their whole childhood, but even participants who come to just one program typically say they feel better after the adventure than they did before they came. I attribute this mostly to the dedication of our staff and volunteers, but also to the activities themselves. Outdoor adventure and recreation can be transformative to the soul, and the impact of these experiences at On Belay programs last long after kids attend their last program. We have several participants who aged out and now volunteer with us. They give back because they were impacted by the program as children and want to offer the same experiences to those younger than them.

goEast: What would you say to someone under 18 who is thinking of giving On Belay a try?

Mason: Do it! Our programs are challenge by choice, a fancy outdoor education way of saying, you choose your own level of adventure that’s right for you. Unlike what can easily happen in many other recreation settings, like organized sports, gym classes, or peer groups, you will never be pressured into doing anything you don’t feel comfortable doing while with On Belay. There’s plenty of learning and growth that happens when young people participate in their own comfort level, even if they are not completing a challenge or reaching the very tippy top of the climbing wall. I would encourage any kid that’s been impacted by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis to give On Belay a try. You are welcome here!

goEast: How has working at On Belay affected you? What are your reflections on the community created here?

Madeline: Working with these families and hearing their stories really hits home how a challenge like cancer in the family really does impact the whole family system, even if you can’t see it on the surface. Even at our programs sometimes the kids do a great job disguising the challenges they are facing. It is our job to let them know that, if they want, they can let their guard down, that we understand, and that we are here to listen. It genuinely has taught me that you can never truly know what someone is going through, so be nice, be kind, and always help out if you can. That is what the On Belay community is all about, being there for each other and being willing and able to listen whenever you are ready. This community extends beyond our participants. It’s the parents, the grandparents, our volunteers, donors, and the Board of Directors. Everyone involved in the organization has helped create this community and it is something that was apparent to me the second I joined the team.

Mason:  It’s hard for me to detail every part of how working for On Belay has changed my perspective. One big takeaway On Belay has taught me is how important it is to provide youth access to new opportunities in the outdoors. On Belay programs are free, which helps remove barriers to access. We provide all the gear and resources that young people need to climb, hike, camp, kayak, and surf. I think that is important because many families impacted by cancer run through their savings within the first year after their diagnosis. Others find themselves significantly in debt because of medical expenses. Providing free programs allows access to these outdoor recreation activities for people who might not otherwise have this opportunity. Seeing how our free programs, designed to build community, inner resilience, and with a focus on fun, have positively impacted families has made it even more important to me to make sure that our programs have as few barriers as possible. I want everyone, especially those with barriers like physical health, finances, etc., to have access to community, support, and fun in the outdoors.

goEast: Where would you like to see the organization grow in the next few years?

Madeline: Our primary goal is to make sure that On Belay is available and accessible to all the kids and families that need us. With that said, we are working on both expanding the number of programs we are offering in a year to provide more opportunities for youth to connect and take advantage of our programs. In the next few years we would also like to be offering our programs to an expanded region in New England. We see ourselves possibly growing further south, deeper into the Boston area, further north in both New Hampshire and Maine, and west towards the New Hampshire-Vermont border. On Belay continues to be the only program of its kind in the region, and with cancer rates rising among young parents, we want to make sure we are there for these kids and their families.

Courtesy: On Belay

goEast: What about volunteering—who are you looking for right now, how can they get involved?

Mason: We are actively seeking volunteers for our programs. Volunteers work directly with kids at programs engaging in activities with them, helping guide the group between activities, and acting as role models for participants. We are looking for people who have a passion for youth development, love being outdoors, or have a personal connection to our mission of cancer support. We are so thankful for the support of our amazing volunteers. Their level of dedication to our program and kids are truly inspiring—If you are interested in volunteering you can sign up on our website here.

goEast: Do you have resources for parents, children and caregivers?

Madeline: Of course! We work closely with many other organizations that provide a variety of services for families impacted by cancer. Some great organizations that also provide access to the outdoors for kids and families at various stages of their cancer journey include Lucy’s Love Bus, Camp Kesem, Camp Casco, Camp Sunshine, and Rett’s Roost. We have many more resources ranging from financial assistance to bereavement resources on our website:

Mason and Madeline at EMS Portsmouth.

Thank you Mason and Madeline! With the warm weather approaching, summer program fundraising is in full swing. To learn more about this awesome organization and help spread the word, visit, and check out their NHPBS Windows to the Wild feature.