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February 02, 2012

The Inner City Outings Kids Are Alright

Inner City Outings

"This trail is so … naturey. There's so much going on all around us!" says a middle schooler.

"This is the most fun day I've ever had outside," says another.

"When I grow up I'm going to make a forest," says a first grader.

These are among the things often heard by Liz Wheelan, chair of Inner City Outings in Dallas, while leading trips for kids who never experience the outdoors. For years she has written down quotes as she's heard them.

"The kids say it better than I do," she says.

Inner City Outings encompasses 50 volunteer-run groups across the country that lead more than 800 trips and affect the lives of 14,000 kids each year. These kids commonly live in high-crime areas and rarely see the outdoors beyond their neighborhoods. Whether it's backpacking, whitewater rafting, or camping at a place they'd never heard of before, kids who experience ICO trips learn of a whole other world. And they take the memories with them.

"One of them actually mentioned ICO in his valedictorian speech and how that had helped him become more self confident and see things outside of Dallas," Liz says. "It still makes me teary. I can't imagine kids not having the outdoors. That's why making it possible for them is the best use of the time I have."

Inner City Outings

Liz grew up in Northwest Illinois in Rock Island, next to the Mississippi River. Her town sat adjacent to a state park, where she would visit frequently as a respite.

"Whether it was a walk in the woods or being out on the boat floating on the Mississippi, there was just something about the serenity of it," she says. "If we can bring any of that to these kids, nature can have so much to offer."  

Liz began with Inner City Outings in 1993. With the help of its few dozen volunteers and partnering agencies -- Jubilee Park & Community Center and a downtown charter school -- the Dallas group has helped hundreds of kids from some of the toughest neighborhoods.

Reaching inner city kids can be challenging, especially when the parents have never heard of ICO.

"Parents sometimes have never even heard of the places we take their kids," she says. "As we've taken their kids out, parents gradually hear more about it. They hear about the fun kids are having and they want to have fun, too."

Liz takes kids to places they didn't know existed. On one recent backpacking adventure to New Mexico with high school seniors, Liz noticed one of the students was quietly weeping while unloading the van.

“I thought she might've been car sick, but then she told me, 'I've seen things like this on TV, but I didn't realize that it could be this real.' She was looking at the mountains of New Mexico for the first time."

Inner City Outings

While on another trip, she recalled one young kid who saw a park ranger for the first time and couldn't believe someone would be paid to look after a park.

"I said, 'Yeah, he comes everyday and talks to people and protects this place.' And he said, 'You mean I can do this when I grow up?' I still get choked up thinking about that. That's the thing that makes all of this worth it. ICO shows them the possibilities. It gives them a sense of adventure that they didnt have before."

Want to get involved? Learn more about Inner City Outings by clicking here.

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