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Sierra Magazine
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Building Bridges to the Outdoors
by Paul Rauber

Kids from John Muir Elementary School in Seattle discover the big (and little) outdoors on Bainbridge Island.

THE SIERRA CLUB BELIEVES IN EVERY KID'S INALIENABLE RIGHT to watch bugs, climb rocks, get muddy, and fall in love with nature. Two of its initiatives help them put down the joystick and get out to explore and enjoy the planet.

For 35 years, the Club's Inner City Outings program has introduced low-income, inner-city youth to the wilderness, many of them for the first time. Volunteer leaders in some 50 cities across the country work with local social service agencies and schools to arrange hikes and other outings for kids who might otherwise never get the opportunity. One Texas teen describes an eye-opening trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park: "I got to see the stars under a naked night sky, meaning that it was free from pollution and the city lights. I began to think about peaceful things and animals. As I was standing up there, a bird flew right by me mighty fast, and it felt so breezy, like a welcome from nature."

A new Club initiative, Building Bridges to the Outdoors, works with established nature-education programs and educates political bodies on the need to increase opportunities for kids to learn and play outdoors. In California, for example, Building Bridges persuaded the state legislature to commission a study by the American Institutes for Research on at-risk youth who participate in outdoor-education activities. The results showed that they improve their science test scores, behave better in class, gain respect for themselves and the environment, and establish positive relationships with their peers. The program also makes direct grants to organizations like IslandWood, a 255-acre outdoor learning center on Washington's Bainbridge Island, which provides a four-day camp for Puget Sound-area fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders (above). Club national youth-education director Martin LeBlanc calls such programs "a neighborhood investment in outdoor education."

Juan Martinez, who grew up in tough South Central Los Angeles, credits the Club with turning his life around. Now Building Bridges' youth coordinator, he vividly recalls his Club-sponsored trip to the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming: "It's out there where trees don't care what race you are, but they still share their shade; water doesn't care what income level you come from, but still it provides life. And believe me, mosquitoes really don't care who you are; they still suck your blood."

ON THE WEB
The Inner City Outings program always needs volunteers; find out more at sierraclub.org/ico. To learn about Building Bridges to the Outdoors, go to sierraclub.org/youth or contact Martin LeBlanc at martin.leblanc@sierraclub.org.


Photos courtesy of Martin Le Blanc

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