Getting Wet, Getting Dirty, and Having the Best Time Ever With ICO
By Briana Okyere
Debby Rudy's love affair with the environment began in the summer of 1996 when she attended a local meeting of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. "I felt a need to be among more kindred spirits," she claims.
Debby, above at left, found those kindred spirits in two Sierra Club members who were opening up an Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Harrisburg. "It turned out to be one of those rare moments of fate, when you stumble upon something you had been looking for your whole life," she recalls. "They were looking for volunteer leaders to hike, camp, bike, bird watch, paddle, and be outdoors with like-minded people, while taking urban youth on new forays into the world of nature. I couldn't say 'Where do I sign up?' fast enough!"
She did more than just sign up. Debby started at ICO as a volunteer, but it wasn't long before she became a Certified Leader, then a Co-Chair, then Treasurer, then Chair and Treasurer. In 2002, she became the Regional Representative for the Mid-Atlantic Region, and from there served one term as National Vice Chair, then another term as National Chair of ICO.
ICO acquaints inner-city youth with the outdoors in an effort to cultivate an understanding and appreciation for the environment. To Debby, who has been with the program for 18 years, this is the most important aspect of her work. "That 'nature connection' is how every ICO leader influences their local program," she says.
"The most memorable trip I was ever part of was a Columbus Day three-day-weekend outing to Assateague Island National Park," she recalls. "Our participants were so excited. None of them had ever seen the ocean before, let alone been out of Pennsylvania. After a very long drive, we pulled up at the park rest stop to change into swim suits. The kids saw the ocean beyond the sand dunes and took off in their street clothes for the water. They were screaming and yelling for joy and ran right into the surf -- clothes, shoes and all.
"They were astounded, amazed, and joyously happy to see the ocean," Debby says. "Despite having to try and dry out all those street clothes overnight in the cool, damp sea air, I would have let them do it again in a heartbeat. That was a pure moment. Seeing something new, forgetting the tribulations of urban life and being carried away by the simple joy of being in the sand and in the waves. I look at some of the photos from that outing and it brings tears to my eyes -- happy, joyful tears."
"For a participant," Debby says, "the up-close-and-personal contact with the out-of-doors, the sharing of knowledge, getting wet, getting dirty, learning to fish, learning to bike, working on service projects, learning new skills, gathering self-esteem and building self-confidence -- all while having the best time ever -- can change a child forever."
Debby saw proof of this when a participant from one of the chapter's first youth groups walked into a recent ICO meeting, ten years after having run into the ocean on that unforgettable trip to Assateague.
"I would have known his face anywhere, even ten years later," Debby laughs. "It was Var, who went on every outing for six years. He was 21 now, and he'd stopped in to share how grateful he was for the many years of outing experiences with Harrisburg ICO. Var said that the ICO program and our caring leaders had changed his life by helping him deal with adversity through outdoor experiences, teaching him leadership skills, and allowing him to find confidence and self-esteem while making him feel important and necessary." That's Var, below at left, on an ICO canoe trip ten years ago.
Var said what he remembers most is "the feeling associated with the memories of motivating, informative, character-building, spirit-enriching outings with folks that I consider family to this day, no matter how far apart our walks of life take us."
"ICO members have true hearts," Debby says with obvious pride. "We don't need praise or rewards to accomplish our goals of giving as many children as possible the ability to interact with nature. Still, it brought me immense joy to hear a young man who grew up in our ICO program talk about how it greatly influenced his life."
Below, Debby at the ICO National Conference in Estes Park, Colorado, flanked by longtime ICO leaders Melinda Tuhus and Sue Hamerstein, after being elected Vice Chair.
Briana Okyere is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.