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September 28, 2011

Inner City Outings Expands its Reach in Our Nation's Capital


In our nation's capital, the Sierra Club often spars within the political sphere. But many don't realize that elsewhere in the District, the Club has had a different role for many years, connecting countless disadvantaged kids to the outdoors.

Inner City Outings consists of 50 volunteer-run groups across the country that collectively put together more than 800 outings every year and for about 14,000 kids. Many youth involved with ICO deal with the daily challenges of living in neighborhoods with drugs and gangs. ICO trips take them out of that environment and into nature, where they see a world they rarely get to enjoy. Like other ICO programs, the D.C. group relies on partnerships with other community-based agencies and organizations to reach kids in tough neighborhoods.

D.C. Chair Kris Unger said that the program has now landed two new partnerships -- with Groundwork Anacostia and Unity Health Care -- that will help grow the D.C. program into five fully functioning groups. Having a community agency as a partner has its advantages because they already have the ability to organize the kids, publicize outings -- and because "they have their pulse on the community," Kris said.


"When we come in, we're mostly white people," Kris said. "We're reaching kids in a neighborhood without much interaction with other parts of D.C. and there's not much trust there. We're strangers and it takes more effort to win their trust and respect. With that in mind, I appreciate our groups that have agency partners with kids who are easier to engage."

Washington, D.C. has been undergoing gentrification for the past decade with new residents of mostly white, well-educated, young professionals with a higher income slowly moving eastward and pushing out lower-income residents. D.C. ICO targets these lower-income communities that comprise first-generation Latino youth, and African American youth whose families have resided in D.C. for generations.


"We provide a way for people from different socioeconomic groups to get to know each other," Kris said. "That experience is as valuable and meaningful for the volunteers as it is for the kids. Many of our volunteers had never been to certain neighborhoods before joining us.

"There's definitely a social justice component, but the strongest message here is that kids are kids everywhere. There's no good reason why the kids that we work with shouldn't have access to the same advantages and experiences that youth in wealthier parts of D.C. do."

Each D.C. ICO group usually takes up to 20 kids on monthly outings. Destinations range from visiting the Mall and museums to rafting on the Shenandoah, canoeing on the Potomac, and hiking through Great Falls Park in Virginia.


"When you take a kid to the outdoors, you're actually reaching a community. You engage their parents and their friends because the kids go home and tell stories about the trip," Kris said.

Kris has volunteered with Inner City Outings for 10 years. He first got involved with the Sierra Club in Montgomery County, Md. over stormwater runoff issues, but then shifted to working with kids where he could "put more focus into the next generation," he said. Inner City Outings is Kris's way of giving thanks to those who took him outdoors when he was a kid.

"People took me hiking when I was young and showed me nature," he said. "I know I can't go back and thank all these people, but the one thing I can do is pass that on, give that experience to youth, and plant the seeds."

Want to get involved? Visit Inner City Outings for more.


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