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Austin Kraal, from Twin Falls, Idaho, was at home in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). Like so many of us, places of nature settled his soul, mind, and entire being – providing him stability and peacefulness. Many of us can relate to needing this kind of solace, especially during recent challenging times.

The SNRA is a majestic, jaw-dropping spectacle of nature. You will never forget the mountain vistas, and lakes once you have seen them.  Austin loved them in part because their magnificence calmed his anxieties and gave him purpose.

Austin visited the SNRA as often as possible, to do trail work and spend time outdoors in the mountains. Being able to escape to a place to breathe crisp, clean, fresh air and to smell the evergreens, sage, and wildflowers was essential to Austin, both physically and mentally.  The outdoors heal, and as John Denver sang, it truly “fills up your senses.”

Austin struggled from a very early age with intense anxieties. He was a beautiful soul who was tormented and yet, tried so hard to find answers to what was causing his mental health challenges. Eventually, anxiety took its toll, and in September of 2011, Austin took his life.

Gone at the early age of 26, 10 years ago this year, Austin’s legacy lives on through his parent’s support and funding of The Sawtooth Society’s Austin Kraal Memorial Volunteer Program. Through on-the-ground work, important projects in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service are being completed through donations from his family, friends, and people like yourself. Donors and volunteers not only support Austin’s legacy but make a difference in a place we all love.

Kathryn Grohusky, the Executive Director of the Sawtooth Society recently spoke with Austin’s parents to share their meaningful reflections looking back 10 years on the tragedy of Austin’s death. Austin’s mother, Debi Kraal eloquently explained the meaning of her involvement in the Volunteer Program in this way: “If the Austin Krall Memorial Volunteer Program gives anyone the message that life is worth living, and that nature is a way to heal, then our gifts to the fund are achieving what Kevin and I intended as his parents.”   Kevin Kraal made it clear that the gem of Idaho, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is a healing place.  He said, “The Wilderness of the SNRA kept Austin alive longer than if he had not had it as his refuge.”

Austin’s attraction to the mountains meant he gave back to the very place that brought him great happiness. It wasn’t lost on Austin how much work it takes to preserve and protect the place he loved. He spent all of his summers in the mountains working for the Forest Service. Walking every trail, clearing, maintaining, and rebuilding many of them. He was as proud of his skills at falling trees or fighting fires, as he was with his ability to understand the scientific complexities of nature.

It’s clear the wilderness was a big part of who Austin was. His parent’s felt strongly in honoring what he loved, providing others the opportunity to become educated and inspired to carry-on what Austin saw as so vitally important and which served as his refuge for so many years.

Austin’s father, Kevin Kraal, shared what inspires him about the Program, “We want the message of the Austin Kraal Memorial Volunteer Program, even though it honors losing our son to suicide, to come across with optimism and a positive light. This outdoor program can create a positive outcome for someone else experiencing anxiety or other mental health challenges while supporting the land Austin loved so much. That’s what we want for our son’s legacy…for others to get outdoors, to help take care of trails, and to feel the restorative power of nature. It can heal you.” 

The Sawtooth Society is always looking for more people to join the growing number of volunteers who participate in the Austin Kraal Memorial program each year. To date, the program has accomplished a great deal, having logged over 10,500 volunteer hours.

Organizers are looking forward to accomplishing even more this summer. Individuals, schools, businesses, and religious organizations who want to volunteer can help maintain 150 miles of roads and trails alongside professional Project leaders. Since the program first began, youth, ages 10-18 have been a key component in reaching those goals. It is estimated that over 500 youth have assisted with various projects throughout the SNRA since it began in 2013.

Please consider donating to support the Austin Kraal Memorial Volunteer Program.  It is also a great opportunity to gather a group of friends and family to give back to the SNRA with a day of rewarding work and fun! It’s a wonderful opportunity for adults and youth to participate as stewards in preserving, protecting, and enhancing the SNRA.

If you ever feel mental health issues becoming too challenging, please reach out for support.




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