By Kelly Mieszkalski, Sierra Club Volunteer

I recently trekked up to Washington DC for Great Outdoors America Week (GO Week) June 23-26 to speak with many of our North Carolina representatives about protecting America's public lands and getting kids outdoors and to also participate in various GO week events.  As part of the Sierra Club, I lobbied in in support of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act (H.R.  4706/S. 2367), a bill to connect more Americans with the outdoors via state-level incentives for agencies and partners across sectors to develop comprehensive strategies to connect children, youth and families with the outdoors, in addition to legislation to designate new wilderness areas though out our nation.

Highlights of my trip included:

  • Meeting with Congressman David to thank him for his letter to the EPA urging strong coal ash rules, for being a co-sponsor of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act and for all his work to protect our environment.  I also enjoyed meeting with the offices of Representatives Mike McIntyre, Robert Pittenger, Mark Meadows, Renee Ellmers, Patrick McHenry, and Senator Kay Hagan's office. 
  • Getting to see the posters in Congressman Price’s office that show how his district so radically changed due to the last redistricting in 2011:


         Before                                                                                   After

  • Getting to push my pin at Senator Kay Hagan’s office 
  • Attending a lively GO Week Welcome Reception with my fellow GO Week participants from all over the country in the Ansel Adams Gallery of the Wilderness Society.  I was excited and surprised to bump into Scott Breen, fellow Sierra Club “Train the Trainer” participant!
  • Attending the Congressional Issue Briefing on Outdoor Recreation and Conservation among Latino Youth—an engaging conversation about the role of Latino youth in the future of the conservation and outdoor recreation movements, including existing legislative, nonprofit, and federal agency programs. The panel included representatives from the Natural Leaders Network in partnership with The REI Foundation, The Hispanic Access Foundation, The Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, and the Wilderness Society, and was led by Juan Martinez, Board member of the Sierra Club Foundation.  I am so grateful for these organizations for reaching out and trying to bring more Latino youth into the outdoors!
  • Attending the sold-out premier screening of “An American Ascent”—the documentary film that captured the expedition of the first African American team attempting to summit Alaska’s Denali, the tallest peak in North America, in June 2013. I was able to meet many of the climbers and felt incredibly inspired by their determination, humility and desire to reach out and inspire youth of color to connect with America’s outdoor wild places.  I hope we can bring them all to North Carolina to share their stories with our local youth soon! 
  • Attending the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) Youth Outdoors Festival at Bladensburg Waterfront Park on the Anacostia River, featuring Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile and outdoor activity stations hosted by OAK member organizations.  Over 300 local youth participated in nature-based activities on the water and on land including canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, fishing, and putting up tents!  I was surprised by how few kids had been in a tent before, how many were uncomfortable getting on mountain bikes and how many of them didn’t even want to try. I was also super-inspired by the many kids who showed NO FEAR on the climbing wall! It was wonderful to see these kids getting opportunities to try many outdoor activities that were previously foreign to them! 
  • Attending the Congressional Issue Briefing on The effects of Nature and Healing our Veterans in the Outdoors.  Sierra Club, Georgetown University and Outward Bound announced a new effort to add an outdoor therapy component to the Veterans Administration’s (VA) existing PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) based treatment. The project, launching later this year, will develop recommendations for the VA to integrate outdoor therapy into their existing mental health treatment. The initial pilot project will include participants from Sierra Clubs military, ICO, and local outings programs. The research, conducted by University of California at Berkeley through the outdoor laboratory of the Sierra Club, will have far reaching impacts on veterans’ physical and mental practices.  You have probably heard many anecdotal stories about the healing effects of nature and now the Sierra Club will help in conducting the research that may actually document this!


I’m looking forward to returning to Washington DC in September for Wilderness Week in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and to participating in future GO Weeks.  I had so much fun getting to know fellow advocates for the outdoors from all over the country and from so many different organizations like the Wilderness Society, REI, NOLS, Wilderness Inquiry, Outward Bounds, Natural Leaders Network, and more!

Thank you to the Sierra Club for providing me with the opportunity to participate and speak up for those of us here in North Carolina who care so deeply about connecting America with the outdoors and protecting our wild places.

Kelly Mieszkalski
Sierra Club Volunteer
North Carolina Chapter Outings Chair
Durham, NC 

One Marine Reflects on his time with the Sierra Club

Hooch and LemkeThank you to our guest blogger and former staff team member Mark Lemke, a Marine, for reaching out to share a description about the path he took to graduate school in social work and his plans for using the outdoors to help make a better world for those going through the challenges of life, veterans and non-veterans alike. Mark was part of our team for half of 2011...and we miss him! Mark, we know you're making the world a better place!

We all make choices in life that have profound consequences on the life paths we chose. I find myself thinking about this often while walking my dog Hooch in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The choices I made took me from Indiana to North Carolina where I served at Cherry Point as a Marine. After the Marines, like many before me, I met a girl and moved. I followed her to Asheville in 2008. My discovery of the Blue Ridge Parkway changed my view on the world. After finishing an undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2011, I was accepted into the apprenticeship program with the Sierra Club. I was the first apprentice for Sierra Club Outdoors, before it was even called Sierra Club Outdoors. That 6-months in DC with SCO eventually lead me to my current destination.

In September of 2011 saw SCO staff and volunteers lobbying members of Congress on the importance of connecting veterans and children to the outdoors for numerous reasons, namely public health and how nature helps wounded and returning veterans. I was with the delegation of former military members and their testimonies planted a seed in my head. I eventually finished my time at the Sierra Club and moved back to Asheville, NC to figure out my future. I worked at therapeutic boarding school for teenage boys and was exposed to case management and group therapy. The seed began to sprout and take hold, the larger picture appeared.  

The Sierra Club forced to me to take a more intimate look at what it meant to be a veteran. Friends of mine knew that I was in the Marines, but it was never a focal point of conversation, thus old memories began to fade into obscurity. The Marines I met speaking before Congress on that trip painted a picture of how nature is such an important catalyst for healing. I was finally able to connect the dots and realize how the Blue Ridge Mountains helped me transition into civilian life.

In 2013, I made the decision to attend graduate school to pursue my Masters of Social Work. This was a total fundamental shift from my environmental past, but in many ways they go hand in hand. SCO taught me how rock climbing, fly-fishing or a quiet drive on a parkway is therapeutic and can be used to help people overcome trauma and addiction. Now there are many more components to helping veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or substance abuse than the actives described above. But it proves to be a powerful medium and a solid foundation for those veterans trying to sew their lives back together.

I’m about to enter my second and final year of graduate school at East Tennessee State University. During my first year I concentrated on substance abuse and not to my surprise I’ll be doing that at my second year internship. In a funny, but not so odd turn of events I’ll be at the Charles George Veterans Association Hospital in Asheville, NC. I’ll be working with veterans who are in inpatient treatment for addiction, which many are suffering from mental illness. Self-medicating has become the new norm for many who have experienced trauma, veteran and civilian alike. The seed is begining to blossom and hopefully in the near future will begin to bear fruit.

Next time you’re in nature take the time and reflect how decisions take us places. Take off the headphones and put the phone in your pocket, simply take in your surroundings. The decision to apply to the Sierra Club Apprenticeship Program made me revaluate my values.

I would like to thank Stacy Bare and Jackie Ostfeld for their guidance while I was in Washington, D.C.              

New York City ICO Trip Report from Vimary Toribio


Sierra Club Outdoors Nation:

The following trip report and testimonial was written by student Vimary Toribio from NYC ICO, a new CatRock Sierra Club Youth Leader describing the recent leadership retreat which featured caving, hiking, rafting, fishing, and swimming the weekend of June 7 and white water rafting the weekend of June 28th alongside ELLIS High School.  

NYC ICO would also like to give a big shout out to Joey Yasgur who hosted the CatRock students and leaders at his home for the leadership retreat, and the Goldman Sachs Community TeamWorks volunteers who joined us for rafting and helped support that weekend!

"My experiences on the first two Sierra Club Cat Rock trips have been amazing and each was one of a kind. The hiking trip was one of the longest and most challenging things that I have accomplished so far. However, it was a great experience to know that you had a team there to support you and for you to help support. If one of us needs to stop everyone else needs to stop too. Basically knowing the fact that you are going through such challenge with a team that supports you, made me want to not give up on the middle of the hike and keep going because they were my motivation. The view was truly beautiful - since I live in the city I sometimes forget how beautiful and relaxing can be nature.

 That same night we got to make a BBQ. The food was delicious. And not only was it good but we also used teamwork to make it so it made it taste even better. After that we saw a movie about leadership and teamwork called Coach Carter. The movie itself was really inspiring. It is about a basketball team that needs to learn that to be on a team, you need to support your teammates both inside and outside the game, because if one person fails, they all fail.

The next day breakfast was also divided to everyone to participate. After that, we went caving, Before going into the cave we had been playing some trust games. For some people it was hard because they had to overcome trust issues. But you have to learn to trust your team and know that they won't let you fall. Those activities helped when going to the cave because if one of us couldn't actually go up the rocks they would lend you a hand a push.

 We also had an incredible rafting trip. It was really a challenge to carry the raft to the river, but we figured out that we could switch sides if one of us got tired. Again, the keyword was teamwork. Also we got to actually interact with new people and learn about them and their lives while sharing jokes and laughing together, on a really beautiful river. We even saw a bald eagle! It was really fun to get closer to people I already knew and meet amazing new people.

Vimary Toribio 
Student Kappa International High School

Changing the Paradigm: The effects of nature and the healing of our Veterans in the outdoors



Left to Right: Joshua Brandon, Stacy Bare, Tim Brown, Chad Spangler, Kathleen Koch

The Russell Senate Building on Capitol Hill in DC feels about as far away from the wilderness as one could get. I made my way down endless marble halls, past imposing double-doored conference rooms and offices to attend a panel discussion hosted by the Sierra Club with Project Rebirth, Outward Bound, Georgetown University and UC Berkley. The topic was the healing power of our country's wilderness areas and the case for harnessing that power to help Veterans face their physical and mental health challenges.



Led by the Sierra Club's Josh Brandon and Stacy Bare, the panelists made their case for an alternative therapuetic approach to the mental health crisis that is claiming the lives of 22 Veterans each day. As decorated Veterans, Josh and Stacy talked from first-hand experience about meeting the challenges that threatened to overwhelm them by getting out into the wilderness and finding comfort, healing and a way forward in their lives.


Fellow panelist Chad Spangler shared similar stories of Veterans having transformative experiences through Outward Bound's programs. Project Rebirth activist and retired NYC firefighter Tim Brown shared his experiences cycling through the countryside with traumatized and wounded Vets and and listening to them work through grief and trauma as they made their way through the countryside.


As the panelists told their stories, the mountain ranges, white water rivers and pristine deserts of our beautiful country began to feel a lot less far away. Each of the panelists shared their differentl experiences to make one point: our Nation's wilderness areas are precious not only because they are beautiful but because they hold huge potential power - the power to act as a catalyst for healing Veterans and other Americans who struggle with injury, grief and post-traumatic stress. Their plan is to work with Georgetown University to run a comprehensive multi-year study that will track the effects of a combination of wilderness adventure and group therapy on groups of Veterans created with the help of the VA and other mental health agencies. This study will provide extensive hard data and measurable outcomes that the partners fully expect to confirm the efficacy of using our country's wilderness to foster healing and build resilience. A similar effort will be made through University of California with other at risk groups.


I'm happy to report that the panel's audience responded with real excitement to the panel's program proposal - the one question that kept coming up was, "What can we do to help make this initiative happen?" Allies from both the Senate and the House approached the panelists at the end of the discussion to promise support. Harnessing that support and developing a plan of action with the VA are the vital next steps toward launching Project Cohort [are we using this title now?] this fall.


Panel Documents:

Download Changing the Paradigm

Download Changing the Paradigm Panelists

Download June_2014_CAM_Hill_Proposal

Download Sierra Club & GGSC Outdoors Research Summary


Inspiring Connections Outdoors


By Stacy Bare, Sierra Club Outdoors Director

via sierraclub.typepad.com

Read all about the new name, and same acronym, for Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) our amazing program working with 15,000 folks each year to get outdoors in an amazing, now 55 cities and towns across the country!

Want to get involved? Get in touch with your local ICO group here: http://content.sierraclub.org/outings/ico/groups or learn how to start a group in your town!

Rafting Down Memory Lane



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. 


Getting Wet, Getting Dirty, and Having the Best Time Ever With ICO

By Briana Okyere

via sierraclub.typepad.com

Great work about our amazing volunteers in Harrisburg, PA!

A Great Day Outdoors with Military Families in Virginia


On Saturday, June 21st, Sierra Club Military Outdoors and the Bureau of Land Management hosted the "America's Heroes and America's Public Lands event at the BLM's Meadowood facility in Virginia. Steve Ellis, BLM Deputy Director, John Ruh, BLM Eastern States Director, Dan Chu, Sierra Club Wild Senior Campaign Director, and Allison Chin, former Sierra Club Board President joined over over 275 members of the military community and their families in enjoying activities such as as fishing, archery, hiking, rock wall climbing, and wild horses. These families were also able to connect to organizations such as Blue Star Families, National Military Family Association, US Fish and Wildlife, The National Forrest Service, Warrior Hike, and Team River Runner to find ways to continue to get outside. This event was the first conducted under our MOU with the BLM, signed last year to cooperate in serving the military community on public lands. We are excited for our next event, a wilderness trek in Cedar Mesa, Utah in October.

Enjoy the pictures




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Honoring Buffalo Soldiers on African American National Park Day


“Tell your friends and family to visit. This is their park.” Ranger Shelton Johnson told a large mostly African American crowd on Saturday June 7 in Yosemite National Park. Shelton has been a National Park Ranger for 21 years. He told us that every year he speaks to thousands of visitors from all over the world and wishes he saw more African American faces. He told us “This is a dream come true to see so many of our people in one place.”


We were there as a part of the second annual African American National Park Day founded by Teresa Baker from Outdoor Afro, a community focused on reconnecting African Americans with the outdoors and one another through outdoor activities. Last year, Teresa started the annual celebration as a way to encourage African Americans across the country to visit a National Park. This year, the weekend celebration went country-wide: from World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, to Yosemite to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, African Americans spent the weekend connecting to the outdoors and their heritage.


Outdoor Afros, park employees and the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club met that Saturday morning in the Presidio of San Francisco, to retrace the route African American soldiers from the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry took to get to Sierra parks in 1899, 1903, and 1904. These men (and a few women) were some of our first park rangers in the Sierra Nevada. They spent their summer building roads, making maps, extinguishing fires, and keeping poachers and loggers at bay.

The weekend festivities gave first time and experienced visitors the opportunity to get a “taste of the park” so that they stopover for a longer stay on their own in the future.  And what a taste! We sang under the trees with Sista Monica Parker, listened to great-great-grandson of John Muir, Robert Hanna, tell us about the history of Yosemite as we walked the Valley floor, and we cooked, ate and slept beneath a bright moon in Yellow Pines Campground.


The highlight of the trip was watching Shelton Johnson perform as fictional Buffalo Soldier Sergeant Elizy Bowman. The interpretive reenactment took us through time: from the sidewalk in the post-civil-war south to a summer in Yosemite, to modern day America. His performance tackled racism, discrimination, sexism, love, respect, loss and the healing power of nature. I encourage you to see it with your own eyes. Visit Yosemite. Visit all of the National Parks, for that matter.

Support the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act - a bill to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study of alternatives for commemorating and interpreting the role of the Buffalo Soldiers.

What more?
Read Chelsea Roberts’ article, “Retracing History: Following The Buffalo Soldiers To Yosemite”  on Brown Girls Fly and check out James Mills’ commentary “Dispatch from Yosemite: Honoring national parks’ black heritage” in High Country News.

Join NPCA and special guests on Wednesday, June 25 for a Google+ Hangout discussion, The Legacy of Buffalo Soldiers and Our National Parks. This online discussion will feature an interactive Q&A with several panelists, including Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, African American National Parks Day founder Teresa Baker, and NPCA Cultural Resources Director Alan Spears.

If you are in The SF Bay Area On July 16, 2014, you can join the conversation at the California Historical Society with Outdoor Afro members who will talk about the June 2014 trip to Yosemite. 




Celebrating Father's Day with a Father and Sons Outings Leader Team | Sierra Club


Celebrating Father's Day with a Father and Sons Outings Leader Team | Sierra Club.

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