Inner City Outings Brings Kids Back on the Right Trail
College student Lilia Salas, for example, credits her fifth grade teacher, a Sierra Club volunteer who included students on outdoor excursions. Her teacher was known for letting insects like dragonflies and beetles freely roam the classroom.
"That was the reason I wanted to keep going with it and get into wildlife," says Lilia, who grew up in a neighborhood where many kids fall into trouble and don't make it past high school.
Lilia is now a volunteer with Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program, which consists of 50 groups and coordinates more than 800 annual trips for thousands of young people -- mostly at-risk youth more familiar with urban settings than the natural world.
Lilia has discovered what many ICO leaders have known for a few years now: Nature can provide direction and a sense of purpose for young people who've fallen off track. She has directly seen this as a mentor to younger trip-goers. One girl in particular felt "really lost." Lilia, who was involved in school sports, told her about being on the wrestling team.
"She liked the way I talked about it," says Lilia. "A month later she tried out for the wrestling team at her school and she kept with it. She's going to start next year in high school on the freshmen team."
Kids regularly connect with each other during trips, and some reflect on issues they're having back home, says Melanie MacInnis, Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program manager.
"All the time you hear a kid say, 'Gosh, I didn't know you can have so much fun outside,'" Mel says. "And several times a year you hear kids who say they want to become a park ranger, or a natural scientist or biologist who wants to study plants. We know we make an impact whether it's something small or something that's life changing. That's what we aim to do -- to change lives."
Despite all the outdoor places she's explored, Lilia's favorite spot is near her San Jose, California home on a trail adjacent to a lake -- "even though it's man-made."
"I've ran into a boar there -- or maybe it was a hog. We run into all these animals. I don't get close because I don't want to scare them away because it's already nice to see them. It's my favorite spot because it's full of scenery and really calm."
Lilia is studying natural science and law enforcement. She is thinking of becoming a parole officer and she wants to continue as a mentor.
"I like to help kids who are lost and help them find options instead of them feeling like they can't go anywhere else," Lilia says. "Not only do you make an impact on them, they make you learn about yourself as well."
-- Brian Foley