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The Planet
Youth Program Hits Growth Spurt

By Kim Todd

Ralph Flores remembers his first trip to camp as a mixture of exhilaration and terror.

In the first place, there weren't enough locks. He was used to at least three, but the cabin door didn't have any. The room smelled like someone had mopped with Pine-Sol, he thought, not realizing the smell came from the nearby trees. Then the rangers showed up.

"We thought they were immigration. We went in our cabin and stayed inside for an hour and didn't come out until they had left," Flores said.

Flores, who grew up in Watts in south central Los Angeles, is now program director for Watts Labor Community Action Committee. As part of his job, he brings kids from Watts to Yosemite National Park and other wild places, easing their transition to a world where they can smell pine scent at the source and maybe glimpse a deer, wandering across a meadow rather than a television screen.

Flores was one of 108 participants in the Youth in Wilderness program's first conference, "Opening the Door to Nature's Classroom," held August 3-5 in Occidental, Calif. The gathering brought together leaders from all over the state to share stories and swap tips.

Youth in Wilderness conference

Dancers with the Bana Ya Kongo Traditional Congalese Dance troupe perform as part of the festivities.

Photo by Kim Todd

Youth in Wilderness, a joint project of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Foundation, was launched in 1999 as a way to support organizations and schools that introduce low-income kids to the wilderness. The program awarded $2 million in grants last year to northern California projects and recently expanded its grant-making to southern California, Arizona and Colorado.

"Our goal for the conference was to bring our grantees together because they represent such a diverse group of organizations and don't often have the chance to talk with one another," said David Cook, the Youth in Wilderness program officer for Arizona and Colorado. "To watch those connections happening was the best part."

Though the programs were very different - ranging from nature clubs at inner city public schools to A Home Away from Homelessness, which takes homeless children to the beach, and Vision Youthz, which works with incarcerated teens - many of the obstacles are the same.

Convincing the students to venture into the woods isn't always the biggest hurdle. Getting families to sign on for an overnight backpacking trip, or even a day hike, can be equally difficult.

Sau San, chair of the Wilderness Adventures for Youth Club at Oakland High School, remembered how hard it was to convince her parents to let her go on the same kinds of trips she now leads.

"When I first started going, my mom was like, 'You're going to hurt yourself,' but I always came back alive. Eventually, she thought it was okay."

Leaders compared notes both at the dinner table and in more formal sessions on recruiting ethnically diverse staff, working with diverse student populations, encouraging students to become activists, and keeping teens interested once they get a job or the hormones kick in. Throughout the sessions, most agreed that despite the occasional frustrations, the rewards are undeniable.

"As a teen, it helped me think more clearly; it helped me trust other people," Flores said of a camping trip in the woods. "It really helped me change my life around."

For more information, contact David Cook at (415) 977-5721; david.cook@sierraclub.org.

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