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


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: 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


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.

Washington Outdoor Task Force Summit Meeting


  On the approach

As a member of Governor Inslee's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation, I had the privilege to work with some of the best people and organizations in Washington State. Last week was no exception. Sierra Club Military Outdoors partner Outdoor Research generously hosted rrepresentatives of the climbing community from across the state to discuss issues ranging from access and permitting to climbing management and diversifying the climbing community in Washington. Doug Walker (Sierra Club Foundation and American Alpine Club Director), Dan Nordstrom (fellow task force member and President of  Outdoor research), and I joined with representatives from the Mountaineers, Sierra Club, American Alpine Club, Access Fund, Washington Climber's Coalition, Outdoor Alliance, AMGA, and professional climbers to formulate recommendations from the climbing community to the task force to include in its final report this Fall. This report, ultimately written by leaders from across Washington State's outdoor community based upon the input from private citizens, nonprofits, industry, and land managers, will advise Governor Inslee on how to leverage the power of the outdoors in Washington State.



The outdoor industry or community as a whole includes a wide spectrum of members that make it a critical factor to the public health, economy, and recreation of any state. Think about everything that goes into a Seattlite's weekend backpacking trip. The hiker enjoys public lands managed by local, state, or federal agencies. These lands are also promoted and protected by non-profits and NGOs whose missions range from access and recreation to conservation. The hiker may have hired a local commercial guide or attended a local outdoor school for technical or medical training, and she is wearing a clothes and using gear that was designed, sold, and even possibly manufactured in Washington. After the hike is over, she stops at a small town gas station and restaurant on the park boundaries, a town fully sustaining itself on recreation since the decline of the logging industry. Finally, the hike is part of her summer adventure series, which makes her healthier, happier, and an advocate of her wild places. That summer hike was not just a great summer adventure for our hiker. Its also the just one part of a multifaceted spectrum that benefits the states citizens, economy, and public lands. 


White Water Rafting for the Veteran and Military Community!


DSC_0393White Water Rafting in Dinosaur National Monument for Veterans, Service Members, and their Partners or Spouses!

From September 12th to the 15th, O.A.R.S. Canyonlands, Sierra Club Outdoors, and The University of Utah are teaming up to provide 25 veterans, service members, and their partners or spouses an opportunity to explore the wild, amazing Green River out of Dinosaur National Monument from September 12th-15th free of charge as the perfect lead up to the Sierra Club and University of Utah’s, “This Land is Your Land: Toward a Better Understanding of Nature’s Resiliency-Building and Restorative Power for Armed Forces Personnel, Veterans, and their families,” symposium September 17-20th at the University of Utah. This is also a great way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act!

Participants will need to arrive on their own in Vernal, Utah the evening of September 11th by 7 pm and arrange their own lodging for the evening of the 11th and the 15th. At least one van will leave Salt Lake City by 3 pm on the 11th to take participants to Vernal, Utah. This same shuttle will return to Salt Lake City early in the morning of the 16th.

DSC_0280Campsites and lodging are available in and near Vernal. If there is enough interest, we may try and reserve a group campsite.

You will be responsible for whatever gear is needed on the trip. On a limited basis, the Sierra Club or the University of Utah may be able to loan some gear (tents and sleeping bags) for your use.

 More information on this amazing trip can be found below, or here.

If you are interested in applying for the trip, send an email with the subject line: ‘YOUR LAST NAME_FIRST NAME White Water’ to that includes the following information:

  • Name
  • Branch of service, rank, when and where you served (or are serving)
  • Who, if anyone will be accompanying you and his or her relation to you
  • Proof of service
  • Outdoor Experience (none is required) and other veteran / service member trips you’ve been on
  • Two sentences about why you want to go on the trip.
  • Where you will be coming from and if you need help getting to Vernal
  • Any physical or mental concerns you might have about your participation on the trip (we will aim to make this trip 100% adaptable to your needs)

We will let everyone know about their participation no later than August 10th, 2014.

Green River Rafting in Colorado: 
Gates of Lodore – Overview

Set aside as an American treasure in 1938 under the National Park Service, Dinosaur National Monument is an open-air archive of ancient Native American sites and far-out fossils unearthed by wind, water and time.  Within the monument, the Green River rafting trip winds its way through three distinct canyons: Lodore, Whirlpool and Split Mountain all of which contain geological curiosities and rich human history. Lodore was the first major canyon encountered by John Wesley Powell and his men on their 1869 expedition. At its start, the river twists through a catacomb of scarlet slot canyons, yawning valleys and lush ledges of emerald evergreen and brush. Exploration is the mission of the day as the Green promises dozens of side hikes, relaxing nights on the beach and moderate whitewater perfect for young families and laid-back vacationers.

DSC_0420Green River Rafting: Itinerary at a Glance

  • Scenic ride from Vernal, Utah to Dinosaur National Monument
  • Raft through the towering Gates of Lodore
  • Challenge some of the river’s most exciting and famous rapids like Upper and Lower Disaster Falls
  • Hike up Winnie’s Grotto to beautiful oases and side canyons
  • Sit back and soak in the remote splendor of Lodore – its soaring red rock cliffs sprinkled with deep green junipers and piñon pines
  • Feast on delicious meals, relax on sandy beaches
  • Charge rapids like Harp Falls, Triplet Falls, and Hells Half Mile
  • Hike to Rippling Brook -- the perfect place for a cooling shower
  • View petroglyphs at the confluence with the Yampa River
  • We pick up speed as we enter Split Mountain Canyon and the river’s gradient becomes considerably steeper. Four or five major rapids deliver plenty of whitewater excitement during our last day on the river

Shuttle from Split Mountain to Vernal

North Carolina Celebration of the Military Child Outdoors


Our adventure began with a barrage of challenges from our Sierra Club coordinator being detained, and the death of my (fully packed) van’s fuel pump 90 miles into the 200+ mile trip to Camp Lejeune. In classic Sierra Club style, these challenges were overcome, with me experiencing a much needed six hour break in a lovely piney wood along highway 74. This theme carried though during the battle of the wind on lovely Onslow Beach Friday night. Our group made up of Tom, Nancy, Kelly, Hollis, William and I, finally conceded to the wind and agreed to attempt this task again in the morning when our troop numbers would be increased three fold. The morning came with light winds, and cooler temperature for a quick and successful rally to be ready for the children and families to arrive. 


The Mission to Explore the Outdoors challenge was received and met by over 250 participants. The children checked in and were given their mission, which they readily choose to accept, and sent to explore. Each exhibitor had a stamp for the children to earn higher levels of exploration. 


Sturgeon City came with the great flounder petting tank and information about outdoor activities and their fabulous environmental education programming. Squeals of laughter and delight were heard as the children and family explored the opportunities to be outdoors. Next was the Sea Turtle Exhibit which included the nest beach protection, a skeleton, and a cool bag along with a great snake poster for the kids. Many families thought the display was live turtles that were just very still. 


Thrifty Adventures was next, coming all the way from Charlotte, to share the love of climbing and some super cool knots for our explorers to tie. The North Carolina Sierra Club Outings leader set up camp, literally with tents and gear. The kids got to explore inside to see what camping would be like. They also participated in a game using a compass that was theirs to keep. The club also raffled off a family tent to one lucky family. Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary came with Diana the coolest non-releasable marsupial around, along with a hawk, an owl, and wildlife information. 


The North Carolina Zoos’ own education director drove down to share great fossils found in the state the kids were fascinated by a huge sharks tooth. Camp Corral came to tell the families about their great programs that provide free camps for military children. USMC MCCS Outdoor Adventures brought the rock wall and personnel to have the explorers conquer the climb. Happily, they provided gear so even the older kids (adults) could attempt the wall.


This event was only made possible with the labor and perseverance of my E-Corps Crew of Wendy & Drew Foster, William, Hollis E. Parks, Mariah, and Andre and the North Carolina Sierra Club Outings Chair Kelly Mieszkalski, Nancy Card, and fellow veteran Tom Williams the Outings Chair for the NC Cypress Group. Onslow Beach Recreation area staff treated us as if we were family – providing lodging, labor and a fantastic site. Dion & Lloyd you are trulyappreciated.

- Karan Barber

Sierra Club Inner City Outings and Military Outdoors Volunteer Leader


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