It’s Friday and I am finally finding some time to gather my thoughts on Great Outdoors America Week. I have been working for the Sierra Club for just over three years, trying to identify new and creative ways to ensure all kids have the opportunities that I had growing up to get outdoors (free from fear) to play, relax, breathe fresh air, get some exercise and just be a kid.
If you are reading this blog, you probably already know the depressing statistics: the average American youth spends 7.5 hours a day “plugged in” to electonics and just a few minutes each day outdoors in nature. One in three kids is overweight or obese, with the highest prevalence in communities of colors, and all the nutrition programs in the world probably won’t turn the tide if kids don’t get physically active. Being outdoors, climbing trees, chasing frogs, rolling down hills, just playing are some of the ways kids in my day got in their daily dose of exercise (without even realizing it). And for those of us in the conservation movement, getting outdoors as a kid likely shaped our ethics around the environment and gave us the strength to fight every day to protect the outdoors spaces that matter most to us.
So this year, for the first time, Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors programs brought a delegation (a dream team if you will) to Washington, DC, to participate in Great Outdoors America week. For the conservation movement to evolve and expand, it needs to be doing everything in its power to introduce new and diverse people to the outdoors. This week, our delegation of wounded veterans, outings leaders, program providers, teachers and youth, all having experienced the healing powers of nature, took their stories to Capitol Hill, to the Administration and to each other, making a compelling case for the expansion of opportunities for Americans to get outdoors.
On Tuesday, forty of our youth delegates joined Sierra Club’s Baltimore Inner City Outings Chair for an America’s Great Outdoors briefing at the Department of the Interior and then took to the halls of Congress to deliver photos from Sierra Club outings groups across the country. One photo was delivered to their Congressman, Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, author of the No Child Left Inside Act and one of our greatest champions in Congress for kids and nature.
Throughout the week, the Mission Outdoors delegation joined up with members of OAK (Outdoors Alliance for Kids) to meet with leaders on both sides of the aisle and in the Administration to share their personal experiences in the outdoors.
OAK, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado and Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin hosted a Congressional Briefing on the “Economic, Social and Health Benefits of Reconnecting Americans with the Outdoors.” Senator Udall and Congressman Kind each shared their vision for improving the health of our children through outdoor experiences and announced that they would soon be introducing companion bills (the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act) in the House and Senate to begin reversing the trend of the “indoor child.”
Sierra Club’s Stacy Bare joined the panel to share his personal story. An Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, Stacy faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles when returning home from combat. He credits rock climbing with saving his life and now empowers other veterans to get outdoors. Distinguished panelists included Katie Adamson (YMCA of the USA), Juan Herrera (Outdoor Nation Youth Ambassador), Dr. Joseph Thomson (Arkansas Surgeon General and Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity) and Craig Mackey (Outdoor Industry Association).
In these truly partisan times, I was reminded this week that reconnecting Americans with the outdoors is still a non-partisan issue. Many diverse voices have come to the table to make sure the outdoors is accessible to current generations and protected for future generations. The conservation movement, the health of our communities and our economy could all grow if we work together to reconnect Americans with the great outdoors.
NOTE: Members of Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors delegation have been blogging about their experiences during GOA week. Read their impressions on our blog. Check out all of our photos on our Facebook page!