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May 04, 2009

Inner City Outings Program Hooks Kids Up With Nature

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The Sierra Club's 33-year-old Inner City Outings Program, which takes inner-city kids out into nature while bringing a message of environmental stewardship into their urban communities, is currently active in 50 cities around the country. Two recent outings are emblematic of the program's activities:

In Tampa, ICO leaders Carol Kay and Hadrian Alegarbes co-hosted a trip to Upper Tampa Bay Park with biologist and outdoor educator Pete Rossi of Hillsborough Community College. Kids from the West Point Boys and Girls Club hiked along the edge of mangrove swamps, watched herons and egrets hunt for food, and stepped aside as hundreds of tiny crabs scurried into their holes. That's ICO volunteer Julie Krueger, above, with outing participants.

"None of the youth on this outing live more than 10 miles from the water in Tampa Bay," says Kay, "but most of them never get a chance to get their feet wet. For most, this ICO trip was the first time they had ever experienced the ecology and adventure of the estuary in their own home city."

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The group identified different species of mangrove trees, and Rossi showed them how plants and animals have evolved in order to survive in the salt water estuary. After the hike, everyone gathered up nets and pails and headed out to the shallow warm waters of the tidal flats to see what they could find. ICO volunteers helped the kids cast large nets into the water and pour their "catch" into a pail, or shovel and sift sand through a screen.

Back on dry land, Rossi reached into the pails to investigate the life forms the kids had gathered. "Did you know that you brushed your teeth with seaweed this morning?" he asked, holding up a long piece of green algae and explaining that a derivative of seaweed is found in toothpaste. He then held up another specimen, telling the kids, "The blue blood of this horseshoe crab is worth $15,000 an ounce! It's used to test for certain diseases in newborns." As he drew fish, shells, crabs, worms, and egg sacks out of the pails, each item drew "oohs" and "ahhs" from the kids. (All the creatures were returned to the Bay.)

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Tampa Bay ICO, with a volunteer base of more than 35 individuals, gets 1,000 urban youth out of the city each year to hike, canoe, and camp in wild places where they learn how to appreciate nature and become good stewards.

Two thousand miles to the west, seven San Diego ICO volunteers took kids from Sherman Heights Community Center in Temecula, Ca., to the nearby Wilderness Gardens Preserve, a 584-acre county park in north San Diego County. The group is pictured below at the park.

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The trip was led by veteran ICO leader Jim Davis, assisted by Bill Tayler. "All the rest of us volunteers were first-timers," says Luis Omar Lopez, below in checkered vest. "When the two vans full of kids pulled into the parking lot, you could feel minor tension between the volunteers and students, who ranged from first grade to middle school."

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The discomfort vanished as soon as the group hit the trail. The kids talked as they tromped along, while ICO leaders pointed out lichen, scat, dung beetles, Indian grinding stones, poison oak, and anything that might pique the kids' interest. "Everyone began to open up," Lopez says. "At a small pond we found coots and mallards floating among the cattails, and water skimmers scooting along the banks. The kids asked more questions, calling to us by our first names as they pointed out mushrooms and crawdads."  
 
Halfway through the hike it started to rain. The youngest kid in the group, a boy named Ivan, had been waiting all day for rain to begin. "He looked like a tiny grinning gremlin in his oversized poncho," says Lopez. "His happiness over the rain was contagious. He had a genuine simple joy in his eyes."

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Lopez says one little girl, Ashley, pictured above, kept making excuses about crossing and re-crossing a stream near the trailhead. "She was the smallest, quietest kid in the group, but hungry for adventure. She made me smile with pride when she scooped up a giant Jerusalem cricket without a trace of fear."

By the time the group arrived back at the trailhead, a completely different dynamic had taken hold from when they first arrived, Lopez says. "In just a couple of hours we'd become a goofing band of friends thanks to the beauty of nature and its ability to facilitate bonding between people across their seeming differences. I knew these kids were coming away with something amazing."

Read Lopez' blog, and learn how you can get involved with Inner City Outings.

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