Wild About Baltimore
Baltimore public school teacher Brad Hunter, above at right, a volunteer leader for the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program, says he found out about ICO totally by happenstance.
"I'd been overseas for some time and I came back to visit my parents," he recalls. "My mom is a Sierra Club member, and the chapter newsletter was sitting on the table. It had an ad about Baltimore ICO, so on a lark I went to the website, made a call, and went on a trip. After four or five trips I decided to get trained as a leader because helping youth have positive experiences outside was just, well... fun. I've now been on 70+ trips over the last six years."
With active programs in more than 50 U.S. cities, ICO provides outdoor experiences for kids who might not otherwise have easy access to nearby nature. Hunter says most of the kids he works with have had few if any opportunities to access the natural world. "That's what ICO is all about. The main thing I want to do is get kids comfortable in the outdoors. From that comfort they can then learn to appreciate nature, and a desire to protect the natural world often follows."
"I can talk to the kids all day about things like water-quality issues in Chesapeake Bay," he says, "but if I'm able to help them have a positive experience through fishing, sailing, hiking, or just exploring around the bay, then as they grow older they'll have a greater understanding and appreciation of what an amazing resource it is."
Hunter, who grew up just outside Baltimore, says getting outdoors is something he's always done. "I was active with the Boy Scouts for years and went through all the ranks to Eagle, but I initially joined mainly just so I could go camping once a month -- that looked really cool."
Trips with the Boy Scouts were often out of state, so as a child it was Hunter's impression that one had to travel far away to really experience the great outdoors. But now one of his goals as an ICO leader is to introduce kids to places that are close at hand, often just 15 minutes away from where they live.
"When I first started leading ICO trips, we'd usually go further afield," he recalls. "We'd have these amazing experiences, but then it occurred to me we were going places that the kids might not be able to return to easily, if ever. So I decided to show them places they can reach using the city bus system; that way they can go back another time with friends or family and share their experience."
"We still rent a van and drive an hour or two a couple times a year to see something really special, but most of our trips are to places like Druid Hill Park, Middle Branch Park, and Patatsco State Park, all within 15 minutes of the school the participants attend.
"Through my years with ICO I've learned that it's not the hard-core all-day adventure trips that get the kids talking about nature," Hunter says. "It's going somewhere and being able to climb a tree, skip shiny stones in a lake, chase a butterfly, or wade in a cool stream. Just making the connection with nature and realizing they have access to it is what's important."
Hunter leads 12-14 trips each year, including at least two overnights. "For many of the kids I take out overnight, it's their initial exposure to so many things. It's their first time sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows; it's their first time waking up to watch a sunrise; it's their first time running barefoot in a grassy field.
"There are huge segments of our population who don't have access to these experiences," Hunter says. "If they don't get them now, in elementary or middle school, they probably won't be interested in them later in life, which makes it less likely that they'll be interested in being good custodians of our parks, our forests, and our waterways."
Keeping programs like ICO running at their full potential takes a lot of volunteers, Hunter says. "I couldn't do a fraction of what I do without with fundraising, organizing, gear support, guidance, and expertise from our chair, Nicole Veltre. She really brought me along through ICO."
Hunter says he's seen kids who were reluctant to get dirty, terrified of going out on the water, and scared of the "evil things" in the woods at night become leaders who take point on a hike, show compassion by partnering with someone else who is nervous about being in a canoe, and make connections in science class about where they've seen different rock formations.
"This is a powerful program," he says. "I'm truly thankful for the handful of committed certified leaders we have who consistently come on our outings and help with everything from grocery shopping to stopping a nose-bleed. With their help we've reached hundreds of youth. And if we had another 15 or 20 folks who were willing to spend just one weekend getting certified and then come on one or two trips a year, we could double or even triple our reach!"
Learn more about Inner City Outings, and how you can get involved. Can't find an ICO program near where you live? No problem. Start one!