By J.D. Moor

Lisa Marie Maldonado, a member of the Atlanta Outdoor Club since 2008, has logged 210 events in that time. She credits the organization with developing her self-esteem and getting her out of her “small bubble.”

Dave Vogel discovered the Atlanta Outdoor Club about a year ago. He was hooked after his first outing with the club, which included stargazing through telescopes, and now finds the club’s trips contribute to his exercise program.

“I was walking some, but not enough to be considered a good workout,” said the 61-year-old financial advisor, who lives in Sandy Springs. “I now go on at least three good strenuous hikes a week. I am in much better physical condition than before.”

Dave Vogel says the AOC has some magic about it that makes it special. Vogel was hooked on the club after his first outing, and now finds their trips contribute to his exercise program.
Members enjoy hiking, camping, caving, canoeing and other outdoor activities, as well as outdoor events close to home and around the globe. The all-volunteer group has organized more than 6,000 world-wide events since 2001.

The AOC isn’t just about hiking. Members say they enjoy a healthful addiction to a range of outdoor events such as kayaking, camping, caving and canoeing. And through the club, which is open to people 21 and older, they find places to hike, bike, camp or canoe from the banks of the Chattahoochee to faraway sites in places in Africa or New Zealand.

Since 2001, the all-volunteer AOC has organized more than 6,000 events around the world – it sponsored 18 on a single day in 2012, according to its website – and has enrolled some 15,000 members, always free of charge.

Allston Kendall of Buckhead joined in 2010. “I was working 50 to 60 hours a week as part of the management team of a startup company, which was very stressful,” the 41-year-old said. “I wanted to achieve a better balance between work and life, especially because I was usually too tired by the evening/weekend to really do much. AOC’s been instrumental in helping me keep my perspective on what’s truly important in life.”

Kendall has changed jobs since, has become an AOC trip leader, and is planning a horseback riding event and an eight-day safari in Tanzania.

Closer to home, she’s discovered new places for outdoor activities through the club.

“I had no idea what a wealth of natural resources and parks were available within a short distance of Atlanta. I have a far greater appreciation and interest in Georgia’s rivers, parks and mountains,” she said.

The AOC club ranks its activities by difficulty on a D-1 to D-5 scale, with 5 being the hardest. Kendall continues to set new goals for herself. “I want to eventually get in shape enough to sign up for and do a D-5 hike/trip and not worry about slowing down the group,” she declared.

Isabella Kujawa moved to Atlanta in 2011. The Sandy Springs yoga instructor wanted to explore the area, especially the outdoors, and find other people who shared her interests.

“I became part of an organization (AOC) that I believed in, and it made it easier to socialize in the outdoor setting in which I felt more comfortable,” Kujawa said.

Like Kendall, she derives extra enjoyment from being a trip leader. “Learning that everyone’s perception of how active or capable they are is quite different from reality. It’s rewarding to expose others to the beauty of the outdoors and witness people accomplishing something they didn’t think they could, such as hiking 12 miles,” she added.

Isabella Kujawa, a yoga instructor, became a part of AOC after she moved to Atlanta. She wanted to explore the area and meet others who shared her interest in the outdoors.

Lisa Marie Maldonado may be the consummate member, having logged 210 AOC events since 2008.

The 47-year-old Buckhead resident credits the AOC experience for developing self-esteem that landed her a flight attendant job at AirTran Airways.

“My personality was shy and reserved. I began with small hikes. I have now climbed many major mountains in this country and the world. I have totally come out of my small bubble and even took over as president of the club for a few years,” she said.

In addition, Maldonado is currently the club’s director-at-large and a trip leader who searches for unique destinations to explore. Her outdoor club adventures have resulted in passport stamps from Mexico, Peru and Spain. She has been caught in bad weather outbreaks and had all kinds of equipment mishaps.

“I have challenged my body and mind by participating in events that I considered to be too far outside my ability. I have felt the full impact of how the club has changed my life,” she said.

Allston Kendall of Buckhead joined the Atlanta Outdoor Club in 2010. She had been working 50-60 hours a week at a startup company, and was looking to achieve a better balance between work and life. She says the club has been instrumental in helping her keep her perspective on what’s truly important in life.

They have all enjoyed positive life changes, but Vogel, Kendall, Kujawa and Maldonado agree on one overarching AOC quality.

As Kendall puts it: “Despite an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds, we all come together with the similar interest of enjoying the outdoors and each other’s company.”

Dave Vogel relies on that camaraderie to spur him further. “It’s a wonderful club with great people and great leadership,” he said. “There is some magic about the club that makes it special.”

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