July 15, 2014
By Briana Okyere
Asked why she feels it's important to expose young people to the natural environment and the great outdoors, Tucson elementary school teacher Cheryl Walling, above, responds with a John Muir quote from his 1912 book, The Yosemite:
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."
This quote appropriately describes the verve and enthusiasm that Walling brings to her position as an Inner City Outings leader in Tucson.
[Editor's note: On July 1, the name Inner City Outings was officially changed to Inspiring Connections Outdoors.]
Walling has been a volunteer leader with Tucson ICO for eight years. During that time, she has taken students from across the Tucson Unified School District on outdoor adventures at least once a month -- from short forays into Tucson's nearby nature to Grand Canyon outings to multi-day wilderness backpacking trips.
Getting out into nature has always been a passion for Walling. Growing up in Illinois and Michigan, she regularly went hiking and camping with her family. "When I became a teacher I noticed that many of my students didn't get to go out in the wilderness," Walling says. Determined to expose her students to the natural environment, she connected with a teacher at her daughter's school, who directed her to the local ICO program.
For Walling, the program means more than just getting her students to connect with nature -- it's about forming a bond with the participants, and bringing that personal element back with her to the classroom. "The kids see me as teacher, but they also see me as something more," she says. "They open up to me on the trips and I learn about them. Then I use the knowledge gained on our trips and connect it to what we're learning about in class."
Walling goes to great effort to encourage young ICO participants to form a strong and lasting bond with nature. At the end of all the outings she leads, Walling sets aside ten minutes for quiet reflection. "I want the kids to really connect with the wilderness," she says. "Often they say this is one their favorite parts of the trip."
This was the case with a sixth-grader named Anthony, who participated in several of Walling's outings over the years. On his first several trips, the 11-year-old would suffer from panic attacks and constantly have to use his inhaler. "The entire group helped him overcome his fears and his dependence on the inhaler," Walling says.
By the time Anthony was in the eighth grade, he was hiking challenging peaks and extreme terrain and walking the Grand Canyon, all without his inhaler. And upon entering college, he won a scholarship for his writings about his experiences with ICO. "He now helps me as a volunteer leader on my trips," Walling says. "The kids love to hear about his experiences."
Stories like Anthony's motivate Walling to continually push for more funding for Tucson ICO, applying for grants to help fund trips within the school district so that she can lead more frequent outings and make them even more enriching for her students. "Although our program doesn't have a lot of money, we've been able to get grants from some amazing local businesses that have really helped with expenses this last year," she says with obvious pride.
"These trips really change the students and the way they relate to the outdoors," Walling says. Three years ago, Arizona threatened to close multiple state parks due to budget cuts. Incensed, Walling's students wrote letters to the governor, insisting that the parks stay open. "And they did!" she beams.
Walling and her fellow Tucson ICO volunteers constantly remind young participants in the program that it is their responsibility to maintain and care for the parks and wilderness in their community, but they take pains to impart this message in a way that the students enjoy.
Nothing makes Walling happier than to see a student who is truly inspired by the environment. "I love seeing their faces when they discover a new place and when they realized they have completed a goal," she says.
Briana Okyere is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.