I was first introduced to the Sierra Club as a 23 year old participant on a rafting trip with Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) -formerly Inner City Outings. There are fifty five ICO groups across the country and each group collaborates with community partners to go outdoors with people who may not have access on their own to safely discover the wonders of the natural world. As a teenager, I fit the profile of some of our ICO participants. I lived on the streets in Florida and Georgia, dropped out of high school and ran away from my mother’s house. I had always lived in cities. I had never pitched a tent and didn't know what poison oak/ivy looked like. I’d never really enjoyed physical activities, but when one of the rafting leaders asked me if I’d like to train to become a volunteer guide, I said "Why not?" The rest, as they say, is history.
Twenty years later, I’m a member of a small staff team managing outdoor programming for Sierra Club Outdoors. I have a great job. We support 5,000+ volunteers across the country that go outdoors with over 250,000 diverse participants annually.
I still volunteer with the ICO Rafting group. I spent the last three weekends on the South Fork American River with teen-agers from three community agencies: twenty-five mostly Asian and Latino young men and women from Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy (ESA), eight Latino and white young men from Hanna Boys Center and fourteen Latinos and Latinas from Richmond SOL (Sports, Outreach, Leadership). I witnessed young men and women challenge and support each other as they tried new things like: sleeping outside, gazing at the night sky without city light, paddling a raft, cooking on a camp stove, exploring a cave and for some -- swimming.
While each trip had its similarities, each group of participants offered a different and fresh look at the river, the outdoors and what we do. On the ESA trip, the young scholars ages thirteen to eighteen taught a “new” game: Treasure Hunt. The object of the game was to collect the most amount of trash from the ground. We swept that beach clean! On the Hanna trip, I saw freshman and senior boys buddy up to support each other make choices about jumping from a twenty foot rock into the river. And the Richmond SOL trip introduced me to the joy of family camping with campers ranging in age from two to those in their seventies. After our first day of rafting, we met the teens’ families at camp, where at least seventy people welcomed us. They sang birthday songs to one of us in Spanish and English. They opened their tables and stoves to feed us the best camp dinner I have ever had while we all listened to stories from the day.
One of the most inspiring stories I heard was from a sixteen year old young lady. She told us that it was the most relaxing and exhilarating experience she had ever had. She was enchanted by the beauty of the river. She was so touched by the experience that she wanted to give up her spot in the boat the next day so her dad could have it. Our Trip Leader made it possible for them both to raft and share the experience together.
At the end of every ICO raft trip, we invite the participants to come back and train with us. We teach people fourteen years and older to navigate white water and volunteer with teens and adults in the outdoors. While the pitch was delivered at each trip close, I looked around the closing circle and saw nodding heads and huge smiles as each teen considered themselves as raft guides and I was reminded of when I was invited into the ICO family – and how that one invitation change my life.
Thanks to Bart Carlson Sr. for providing the pictures.