Since 2009, Alyssa Ballestero (far left in photo) of Greenville, ME has led 14 SCA conservation crews, from Denali in Alaska to Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia. But if her name sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve seen, well, a lot of her on a certain reality TV show. We talked to Alyssa, a full-time social worker, about crew leading, surviving television, and her impending wedding atop Mount Katahdin.
14 SCA crews! What’s the addiction?
I love the sense of community, working together to create something amazing, the wildlife encounters, the leadership development, meeting new people from all walks of life. Every crew I learn something new.
You must have a million memories…
Oh, yeah. Working on a newly-cut trail in the middle of July in Alaska when it starts to dump snow on you so you have to go back to camp and stand by the fire to stay warm. Baking a cake and having surprise birthdays for members. Seeing everyone’s clothes covered in mud and sweat, and they are completely sore from swinging an axe, and fall to the ground after a hard day’s work. Those are the memories keep me coming back.
How would you characterize the personal impact of SCA experiences?
Putting yourself through any SCA experience will lead you to self-discovery. For me, I was able to turn from a shy, young leader to a confident, strong leader. Not only in the outdoor education world, but I can see the confidence in my day to day life. I just have grown so much as a person the more I was challenged outside of my comfort zone.
And SCA led you to wilderness therapy?
Wilderness therapy’s practice is to “treat people like people.” We are all humans, we all have struggles, and we are all held back because of one flaw or another. The idea is to take people out in the woods for months at a time: to truly experience nature, and to be stripped down from electronics, communication with others, and life’s daily stress. Once you are out there, it is extremely difficult to stress about traffic, or something that was said on Facebook. Instead your main focus is to survive.
And that, in turn, led you to Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid?
My sister and mom were the ones who saw a commercial for the show back when it was first coming out. There was another girl from New Hampshire, so they encouraged me to apply. Never thinking anything would come of it, I finally made it through all the interviews and flew out to LA for finals. I felt like this was a once in a lifetime chance, so I did it!
What’s the show about?
It is about survival and how two people work together – or work against each other – in a survival experience. How do you make shelter, get purified water and hunt for food, with only two man-made resources. Being naked strips you down to nothing, exposes you to every element out there. You have to get creative, hope you have a lot of patience and get a kind-hearted partner.
And you performed really well on the show…
It was so interesting once I was put out there. I had gained all my skills and confidence within North America. However, I was placed in Mexico, a very different environment. So, there was definitely a learning curve, trial after trial with lots of failures. But eventually you will get it right and the moment you do, it’s a very powerful feeling.
How are you enjoying your celebrity status?
Well, there are two ways to be a part of a TV show. You can promote yourself or you can try to hide in your log cabin. I choose the latter. I did the show for an adventure and because I like being outside. It has been very difficult for me now that it has become such a popular show. Once people saw my experience on the first episode, they asked me to do a whole season called Naked and Afraid XL. You’ll have to wait till September to see how I did on that one.
But before that, you’re getting married…
I am. We have a dog and I am sure the kids will follow soon. I met Robert (Hopkinson) in 2011. I was the SCA coordinator in Denali National Park for the summer. He was a crew leader, work skills instructor, and later worked with the SCA Massachusetts AmeriCorps program. He loves to tell the story of how much he hated me at first. Apparently, I took all the good tents for my crew and left the others in the twenty-year old cache for everyone else!
Not exactly the way to a man’s heart…
Fortunately, we were able to meet in different circumstances a year later. We were both put on a two month Leader Crew roving along the southern part of the PCT. We instantly became best friends; you know the bonds you make with people on an SCA crew. And on August 13th we will wed on top of Katahdin in Baxter State park with our immediate families.
Now that’s a happy ending…
Yes, we’re an SCA power couple!