Club Program Gives Disadvantaged Youth New Chances to Learn About Nature
by Jenny Coyle
Until three years ago, wilderness could not have been further from Marlo Aleman's mind.
He'd walk through his San Francisco neighborhood worrying that a gang might mistake him
for a rival. His dad is a janitor and his mom assists a disabled woman. His high school,
Galileo Academy, draws students from the low-income Fillmore, Tenderloin and Chinatown
districts, where 75 percent of the students are eligible for the subsidized lunch program.
"Nature" was what Marlo experienced in nearby Dolores Park; true wilderness was
something he saw only on television.
When he started high school, Marlo was a class clown, the kind of student who'd sit in
the back of the class and lob comments into the room like little bombs, amused by the
ensuing mayhem. He'd flunked out of half his freshman classes.
But his teachers saw promise in Marlo, who had so far avoided joining a gang. "He
was a smart-ass, but he was a smart smart-ass," says English teacher Steve
Hagler and fellow teacher Dana Erickson had co-founded an environmental education class
called the Galileo Outdoor Adventures Program - or GOAPe (pronounced "go ape").
They convinced Marlo to join the program - a move that kept him in school.
GOAPe is a semester-long class that begins with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge -
something 70 percent of the students have never done, Hagler says. They take day hikes in
local state parks and go through a "ropes" course to build trust and
self-confidence. After an 11-day wilderness expedition in the Sierra Nevada, they teach
environmental education and ecology concepts to middle-school students, work on habitat
restoration projects and coordinate coastal clean-ups.
"The class pushed me hard the first semester because I wasn't used to
hiking," says Marlo. "But when I saw the wilderness, I fell in love. It opened
my eyes to see a place that was so beautiful, but that without the proper skills and
knowledge could be so dangerous."
Marlo stayed in the GOAPe program for five semesters. "If I hadn't 'gone ape' I
wouldn't have graduated on stage like I did last week," he says. "I would have
dropped out of school because it was so hard for me. I'm a lot better person now. I'm
responsible and a good leader."
Hagler agrees. "Marlo went from being someone who stirs the pot on purpose, to
someone who is a leader, who understands the value of cooperation. He does everything he
can to keep a situation positive."
GOAPe is one of 34 programs selected to receive a grant from a new Sierra Club program
called Youth in Wilderness. Launched in
the fall of 1999, Youth in Wilderness recently awarded a total of $650,000 to programs
that will involve 7,800 young people from low-income, disadvantaged families in Northern
California. The goal is to provide quality outdoor environmental education programs to
under-served youth. Two more rounds of grants will be made this year.
"Wilderness is for everyone," says program director Steve Griffiths. "If
we're going to do a good job as environmentalists, then we need to make sure all of our
citizens appreciate and enjoy nature."
To generate interest in the grant-making program, the Youth in Wilderness team -
Griffiths, program coordinator Jackie McCort and program assistant Jenny Harbine -
developed outreach materials in English, Spanish, Cantonese and Vietnamese. Working with
an advisory committee, they talked to environmental educators, community groups and
schools with a high percentage of students on the subsidized lunch program and encouraged
them to apply.
The outreach worked: They got applications from inner-city schools, Girl Scouts, the
YMCA, church groups, outdoor groups, poor rural schools - even groups that serve the
children of men and women who are incarcerated or have AIDS.
Some want funding to expand existing programs or make them available to disadvantaged
students, while others who have established programs see Youth in Wilderness grants as a
means to fund a new idea.
In the meantime, Melinda Joyce, the Youth in Wilderness Sacramento representative,
works to increase state-government support for outdoor environmental education.
Hagler at GOAPe could not be more pleased. "Getting kids into the wilderness
allows us to level the playing field. It doesn't matter if you're the smartest or dumbest
academically; what matters is if you've been paying attention. The consequence of not
putting on long underwear is that you get your butt kicked by nature - not by some
authority figure. And there's nothing like the confidence that gets built in the outdoors.
I have kids come off a rappel and say, 'If I can come down a 60-foot cliff, I can do
Marlo's story is not unusual, says Hagler. "He's the articulate one. What happened
to Marlo happens on some scale to each kid in the program."
The best part, Marlo says, is teaching adults what he knows. "GOAPe gave me the
chance to try something new, and it turns out I'm good at it. I can teach adults now. It's
a pretty powerful feeling to teach someone who's older than you and have them appreciate
it rather than look down on you."
Now that he's a high school graduate, Marlo says he's resting and figuring out his next
"I know for sure I'll find a way to make the outdoors part of my life," he
says. "I don't want wilderness to be just a high school memory. I don't know how to
do it, but I'll find a way."
"A New Frontier" for Kids: An Interview with Youth in Wilderness Program
Coordinator Jackie McCort
Youth in Wilderness has been greeted with such enthusiasm. What took us so long?
It's one of those great ideas that was out there for a while. But we tend to focus on
current brush fires - what's going on in Congress or the legislature, and other threats
that seem more immediate. It's difficult to take a step back and figure out what we need
to do now to make sure we'll have activists in the future. Our children are the future.
Unless we help them experience the natural world, they're not going to value it or work to
protect it. Some of the leaders of programs we're funding have said things like,
"I've been thinking about this for years, but we didn't have money and I didn't know
how to make this happen." Now they have the chance.
Why focus on this population - low-income, inner-city youths?
Most middle-class students will have some opportunities to be in nature, whether it's
water-skiing on a lake with friends or camping in Yosemite with their families. But
low-income youths are often trapped in an urban environment. Their families don't get into
the outdoors, and their schools are struggling financially so there's no money for
programs that offer outdoor environmental education.
Outdoor educators tell me that sharing the natural world with inner-city, low-income
young people is especially rewarding because it's a new experience that has such a
profound effect on them. A person's first time in wilderness can be very powerful.
Are we using outdoor education and the wilderness experience to create future
We're using them to create better people in general. Look at a student like Marlo
Aleman, who credits an outdoor-education program with keeping him in school when he
otherwise might have dropped out. But it's true, too, that he'll be more likely to work on
behalf of protecting wilderness because he's been out there, and he knows how it makes him
feel. Through outdoor education he's learned to value the environment.
Has the Sierra Club been able to bridge cultural gaps in the process?
Yes, and I think part of the reason is that we're working very closely with existing
community groups. For instance, I've learned that Asian and Hispanic cultures and their
activities are heavily family-oriented. The idea of a child - and in particular, a
daughter - going away on an overnight camping trip is outside of their experience. If the
Sierra Club just walked in and said, 'We're taking your kid on a camping trip,' then a lot
of kids couldn't go. So it's important that we're funding community-based groups that
these families can trust.
You've visited many of these programs. What sticks in your mind?
There's nothing like being there when the students arrive. The bus pulls up and the
kids burst out. When you see kids from the inner city step off the bus, their faces lights
up with excitement and wonder. Part of that is just being a kid, but it's also because
it's a new frontier for them.
Will there be Youth in Wilderness programs outside of Northern California?
Northern California was a good place for a trial run, but now we've got our feet on the
ground and we're ready to grow. We're hoping to look at all of California next year, and
then expand our grant-making into a couple of other states, and eventually nationwide.
Getting Them Out There
In its first round of grants, Youth in Wilderness will provide outdoor experiences for
nearly 8,000 disadvantaged youths. Two more rounds of grants will be awarded in 2000.
Here's a sampling of the 34 programs receiving funding so far.
Catholic Charities, San Francisco Rita de Cascia Program
Homeless and marginally housed children will get the chance to hike, kayak and camp from
coastal tidal zones to the highest reaches of the Sierra Nevada.
Estuary Action Challenge, Richmond Urban Creek Restoration Program
Third-grade students will adopt, study, clean up and restore their local urban creeks.
They'll raise frogs in the classroom to be released back into creek homes, design
materials to educate their communities about reducing runoff pollution and plant trees and
Girl Scouts Golden Valley Council, Clovis Sierra Adventurers
Girl Scouts from inner-city neighborhoods in Fresno and Modesto will enjoy a four-day
camping experience. The girls live in poverty and crowded urban conditions and have never
been camping; most of them are Hispanic or Hmong and have never been out of the city.
Merced Union High School District, Atwater Environmental Science Academy
Low-income youths - 40 percent of whom come from families that speak English as a second
language - will go on two one-week backpacking trips on the south fork of the Merced
River. They'll study hydrology, biology, fire fuels, archaeology, astronomy and outdoor
writing. The program is a partnership of Yosemite National Park, the University of
California and Merced
Union High School District.
Sacramento START (Students Today Achieving Results for Tomorrow) On the Wild
This 12-week after-school environmental education program serves fourth, fifth and sixth
graders, 81 percent of whom are ethnic and racial minorities. The program concludes with a
weekend camp-out in the Sierra foothills.
Up to Top