by Kate Mytron New Orleans Inner City Outings
People tell me I'm crazy because every summer I take a group of inner- city kids from New Orleans to camp for a week in Tennessee. I am crazy, and each year I tell myself this is the last time. It's too much work. It's too hard to raise the money. It exhausts me. But every summer I find myself doing it again.
Inner City Outings is a Sierra Club community outreach program that gives wilderness experiences to children who would not otherwise have them. My kids have it worse than some of the other groups; they live in one of the worst parts of town. People from all over come to buy their drugs on a corner a block from the Gert-Town Resource Center, where this year's kids come from. An abandoned factory across the street made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. This is not Mister Rogers' neighborhood.
On our trip in July we had 13 kids aged 8 to 13, three teen volunteers, one agency staff person, and Stacy Spawn, another adult volunteer. This was our third year camping at Big South Fork in Tennessee. The rolling mountains, creeks and rivers with icy, swift water, rock formations and miles of trails are a big change to someone used to the swamps and flat terrain of south Louisiana.
I grew up camping in the Pacific Northwest and believe there is something magical about mountains. But Shekiva didn't find any magic when she walked with us at dusk hoping to spot deer. Terrified by the approaching darkness and canopy of trees, she ran crying back to camp. "Miss Kate, I'm scared," she said through her sobs. We tried to make her understand that we weren't going to let anything happen to her, and there was nothing to be afraid of.
On our walk to a stream for a lesson in water quality with Ranger Brenda, three beautiful yellow butterflies flitted across our path. Onetta screamed and ran for cover as if they'd been killer bees. Our assurance that "there is nothing to be afraid of, it's just some butterflies," fell on deaf ears.
Some kids complained that the water was too cold, but we finally got enough cooperation to set up critter-catching nets. Ranger Brenda demonstrated the art of "river dancing" - loosening rocks and lifting them with her feet to unhook hidden creatures. Things got lively when she slipped on the rocks and fell with a plop into the water in her neatly pressed National Park Service uniform. Onetta was the next to fall, and then suddenly everyone was having fun. In the end it was an effort to get everyone out of the creek and back to camp.
I had anticipated the squeals I heard after dinner when bats nesting in our eating shelter began to fly back and forth. But I didn't expect to see frail and big-eyed Jonathan standing by the chimney talking up into the eaves. "I want the bats to come down so that I can pet them," he told me.
On our last night before heading home to New Orleans, the four girls sharing my motel room stayed up laughing and talking until late. We also had some sobering conversations: All of the girls had seen someone dead on the street from a gunshot wound. Shenika talked about how she missed her brother who had been shot and killed. Two years ago, 11-year-old Shelika saw someone shoot her mother.
The next morning as a few of us sat eating breakfast, I told Jonathan we needed to hurry and get on the road. His eyes lit up, "Are we going back to camp?" I said, "No, we are going home." He wanted to go back to Big South Fork.
We had several sing-along tapes for the long drive. We were playing a Pete Seeger tape when I asked the group in my van to join me for one of my favorite songs. Rolling down the freeway, we sang at the top of our lungs, "This land is your land/ this land is my land/ from California to the New York Island/ from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters/ this land was made for you and me."
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