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May 21, 2014

Bringing Out the Kid in All of Us


By Briana Okyere

Joy Mayfield has been with the Nashville Inner City Outings program since its inception in 2007, and has watched the program cultivate an appreciation for the environment in the minds of the youth in her community.


"I had looked into starting an Inner City Outings (ICO) program here in Nashville in around 1998, but I couldn't find enough people at that time willing to volunteer to be leaders," the longtime Sierra Club volunteer leader recalls. "Then, to my delight, in 2007 two young ladies in the Sierra Club's Middle Tennessee Group decided to start an ICO program here, and knowing I was already a certified outings leader, asked if I would join them. They also knew I had customized some local outings specifically for families so children could be included."


Joy loves the outdoors, and enjoys exposing nature's intricacies to children who might not otherwise readily have the opportunity to experience the great outdoors. "Working with ICO, I get to be a kid again, exploring the wonders of the natural world. We adults take life so seriously. Sometimes we forget to play and have fun."


Above, Joy with good friend and Nashville ICO chair Craig Jervis. Below, young ICO participants gardening at a local historic site.


It is Joy's mission to share her love of the environment with the youth of Nashville. Sometimes it's not the easiest thing to do.

"I remember one hot, sticky, humid day in the summer of 2010, we took a group of youth from a new agency we were working with to Beaman Park," she recalls." My co-leader was my friend Betsy Garber, the chair of Nashville ICO at the time. We were the only adults on the trip aside from the bus driver. Five very big -- as in football linebacker big -- sullen-appearing 16-to-18-year-olds got off the bus. They were not smiling, and they looked Betsy and me up and down in an almost threatening way.

"I remember Betsy leaning over to me as we began the hike and whispering, 'remember, they're just big kids.' We proceeded to hike the two-mile loop trail, pointing out edible plants, wildflowers, birds, and insects, encouraging them to touch and feel, to listen to the sounds of the forest, to immerse themselves in the quiet. Suddenly the interaction began. We took a dogleg down to Henry's Creek and let these young men remove their shoes and explore the stream barefooted and just play in the clear, cool water."

Something transformative happened down there in that stream that day, Joy says. "I realized Betsy was correct in her assessment: These were just big kids. Their entire demeanor changed in this peaceful, woodland setting. We watched their defensive posture change. They became light-hearted, talkative, and animated. They became little kids again."

Below, the 2010 trip to Beaman Park.

ICO-trip-to-Beaman-ParkPhoto by Betsy Garber

Despite her trepidation at the start of the trip, Joy remains exuberant about its aftermath. "Shortly thereafter when we contacted the agency for follow-up, we were stunned to discover that all the teens we took hiking had previously been in some kind of trouble with the law. The agency disclosed that their mission was to afford children in trouble a temporary, structured, and safe residence where they could learn new, positive life skills as they transitioned from juvenile detention to independence."

Joy gets a deep satisfaction from being able to lend a hand to juvenile youth's reintroduction into society. "I have one photograph from that trip that I use sometimes to keep myself pumped," she says. "Whenever I look at that photograph I remember why it is we do what we do in ICO."


For Joy, ICO does more than just expose youth to the outdoors -- the program and its volunteers instill a deep connectedness with nature. It is this connection, she believes, that encourages a personal ethic of environmental stewardship. "Children of today have many environmental issues that they will have to confront as adults -- the leftover mess created by their predecessors."


It is the mission of volunteers like Joy to prepare today's youth for the environmental issues they will face tomorrow. "The more we can get children outdoors, the more they will engage in the natural world and want to preserve it," she says. "This is my belief, and I have certainly seen it happen time and time again -- even with my own sons!"

Find out more about Inner City Outings.

Briana Okyere is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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