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March 02, 2011

Once on the Wrong Path, This Inner City Outings Leader Meets Obama

ArturoWhen Arturo Cervantes was a teenager growing up in a rough neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, he joined a gang, got expelled from school, and landed in jail. He never could have imagined that one day he would be invited to the White House and have the chance to shake hands with the president of the United States. But in February, that's exactly where he was, as he listened to President Obama introduce America's Great Outdoors, a major conservation and recreation initiative for our public lands. One of the initiative's chief goals is to get more families and kids outside and into parks.

So how did Arturo, now 21, get from Point A to Point B? A turning point in his life came during his first rafting trip in 2008 through a school program. While cruising the Merced River, his raft flipped over.

Arturo's reaction? "Let's do that again!"

The safety boat that Arturo climbed into happened to belong to Melanie MacInnis, manager of the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program. It didn’t take much convincing on Melanie's part for Arturo to become a volunteer leader for ICO.

"I wanted to become someone better because my mom didn't raise me this way," says Arturo. "When ICO came up, I knew this would keep me occupied. These are skills that no one I know really has."

Last summer, Arturo returned to his former school and met with middle school principals to pinpoint kids most likely to drop out. His ongoing goal has been to get kids into programs that will reward them "with camping trips, ropes courses, kayaking, swimming, anything outdoors," he says. "The focus is to keep them in school."

When Arturo was at the White House to hear President Obama speak, he admitted that it was awkward to be one of the few young and Latino people in the room. But he realized he was surrounded by people who shared his objective of getting kids outside.

"This event was amazing, because everyone I talked to there wants to get kids outdoors. I was telling them, 'You have all these ideas, and I'm like a foot soldier. I'm the one applying these ideas,'" he says. "Hearing it from the president, he gets it. He's serious about it."

Arturo is one of several volunteer leaders in the Inner City Outings Program, which has fifty groups around the country. While the turnaround he's made with his own life is extraordinary, stories like his aren't uncommon in the program.

"The Inner City Outings program has touched many people in different ways," says Melanie.  "For someone like Arturo, it can be as simple and yet as significant as helping them see a different way of life."

If you're backpacking in Yosemite or the Desolation Wilderness, you might run into Arturo -- he's there at least once every other month. When he's not doing that, he's studying sociology at a junior college. Ultimately, he hopes to become a parole officer, but his continued focus is on mentoring and reaching out to youth. He's already had a lot of practice.

"Now, being a leader, I get to bring my little brother on trips. When I hear kids at the high school say, 'I’ve never been camping,' I tell them, 'OK, you're coming with me.'"

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