Inner City Outings Brings the Big Apple to the Outdoors
One would think that New York City -- dubbed a "concrete jungle" by singer Alicia Keys -- offers little for outdoor enthusiasts. Not true.
"We have about 1,600 miles of hiking trails in the area that most people don't know about," says trip leader Ted Bloch, a Sierra Club volunteer for 30 years.
Lake Minnewaska, Hudson Highlands State Park, Hook Mountain. These are just a handful of the places kids from the country's biggest city enjoy through the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program.
"Moving here, I became amazed at all the wonderful places to hike that are actually pretty close by," says trip leader Ray Greenwell, a volunteer since 1984, who works with kids from Kingsbridge International High School in the Bronx.
New York City's Inner City Outings program first launched in 1981, a time when "it had no money, and the woman who was running it -- we'd all pile into her station wagon and that was it," recalls Ted.
Now it partners with five agencies, each leading about a half-dozen outings for kids of all ages every academic year, whether its hiking, camping, or rafting.
"These days we have more volunteers, we have successful fundraisers that allow us to rent vans, and some groups even have buses provided for them," Ted says. "And we're also able to afford river rafting trips and other types of outings that we couldn't do before."
Inner City Outings encompasses 50 groups across the U.S., serving about 14,000 kids. Completely run by volunteers, each ICO program partners with community agencies and groups to reach urban-area kids and connect them with nature. Many of the kids involved grow up in tough neighborhoods and are not even aware of the natural gems nearby.
Dedicated volunteers who make ICO possible get as much out of the program as kids. Ray recalls hiking through Harriman State Park when a girl ahead of him rushed back toward him.
"She told me to close my eyes and she led me around a corner to where there was an outlook. She told me to open my eyes and I was just looking at this beautiful scene," he says. "But what was truly special was that she was so excited for me to experience this view. That's the type of thing that happens on these trips."
Sometimes ICO kids are indifferent on trips. But ICO leaders will tell you that the more youth see these places, the more they connect with the outdoors and appreciate it.
"You might take one trip and show them this beautiful view of the Hudson River. And they might not care. But as these kids gain after a series of outings, their appreciation grows," Ted says. "All the kids have a good time and we're able to talk about the consequences of not having these wild places. We talk about 'leave no trace' and identifying trees and animals. They always enjoy it. That's my reward, to be able to provide this experience.
"There has always been a core group of folks to step up and commit to the mission of providing outdoor experiences to kids who would otherwise not have an ability to see these places. That's really the central value we all share."
Want to learn more about Inner City Outings? Click here.
Images courtesy Ray Greenwell.