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September 08, 2011

Inner City Outings Leader Is "One of Those Kids"

Melaina at Grand Canyon

With her military background, Inner City Outings leader Melaina Sharpe was sometimes teased for bringing a "militant" component to outdoor trips. Her orderly ways made impressions when she first arrived at the Washington D.C. ICO program four years ago.

"I would say, 'I wouldn't call being a stickler for organized, safe trips and providing positive roll models and enforcing discipline as being militant,'" Melaina said while laughing.

"She was 'militant' and we were a bunch of lovey-dovey hippies," said Kris Unger, chair of ICO program in D.C. "The teasing was mutual."

Hints of Melaina's 15 years in active duty might creep out from time to time during ICO trips. But it's her connection with kids that makes her stand out as a leader. Melaina now co-chairs the Louisville ICO program -- one of ICO's 50 groups across the country that coordinate more than 800 outdoor trips for 12,000 kids every year.

"I like what ICO does with kids, taking them out of the urban environment and showing them something other than what they're used to," she said.

ICO targets at-risk youth who typically have no access to -- and are unaware of -- beautiful natural settings beyond the city limits. When kids first go on an ICO trip, they realize that there's another world out there.

Melaina herself grew up in an inner-city environment in Massachusetts, assisting her mom in raising her younger brother and sister. Because of this, she relates to the youth in the ICO program who live in areas that struggle with gangs and drugs. She knows what these kids go through.

Melaina Sharpe 1

"I know it because I've lived it," she said. "I know from whence they came. I am one of those kids. I'm just an older version."

Melaina's love for the outdoors originates with her mom.

"I'm fortunate that my mom had us see more than just our neighborhood. We'd hike up Sleeping Giant in New Haven, Conn. and eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And when I was in the military stationed in Germany, I hiked a lot. So when I came home, I found I could do the same here with kids. And I love it."

Melaina's ability to discipline in a compassionate way has influenced volunteers and ICO leaders around her.

"The main thing that I've learned from Melaina," Kris said, "was the responsibilities you have as a leader to protect everybody, to have everything well organized, and to set a higher standard for what you expect from yourself, the volunteers, and the participants."

"It's lovely to be able to be quiet and sit and listen and not be connected to phones and computers," Melaina said. "The kids are being exposed to something other than their world -- their neighborhood -- and hopefully they come to love it the way I do, and learn something as well.

"One time a little 6-year-old started coming with us, and at one point he was holding my hand and said, 'I really like it when you guys pick us up and take us out for walks.' I was thinking, you're going to make this soldier cry. That's why I do it. He wanted to do what the big kids were doing, even though it was a hard hike. But he made it, and he was proud, and so was I."

When asked what her one favorite outdoor spot was, she said, "I find myself needing to go to the mountains. I've been to the Grand Canyon and I'm going to the Bitterroots in Montana in a couple of weeks. Honestly, I can't pick just one place. I just go wherever the kids go."

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