One Small Step: Paddling for the Planet
Melanie Mac Innis Berkeley, California
Inner City Outings leader, age 37
"I went through hard times in my teens and spent some time on the streets. I had always lived in big cities--never spent time in the outdoors. I had never pitched a tent and didn't know what poison oak looked like. Then at age 22, I was invited to participate in a rafting trip with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings [ICO] program.
"I was really afraid of rafting. But I saw one of the tough kids crumble in the boat, saying, 'I'm afraid to swim. I can't do this.' Helping him conquer his fears made me conquer my own.
"The year after my first trip, I joined the training program to become a volunteer trip leader. Now I'm the regional representative, so I coordinate 11 different Inner City Outings groups. During the rafting season, the San Francisco Bay group runs a trip every weekend, about 35 a season, with up to 20 kids per trip.
"I've seen participants who have come out a couple of years in a row and then tell me they want to become a volunteer guide. They realize they are a part of something bigger, and they want to give back to others. Kids come to our program as part of a group--Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, schools. The program teaches them group dynamics and teamwork.
"A lot of kids don't know what it's like to be in a place where there's no concrete. They don't even know why they should care when they hear about being green or saving the forests. But a program like ICO shows them: Here's this wonderful place, and we have the opportunity to protect it. You can see them begin to realize why it is important. We're changing kids' lives every trip."
--interview by Orli Cotel
NATURAL HIGH A 2005 study initiated by the Sierra Club and administered by the California Department of Education showed that at-risk students who took part in a weeklong outdoor science school reported having increased self-esteem and a greater sense of responsibility, and raised their science test scores by 27 percent.
ON THE WEB Find out more about Inner City Outings and the Sierra Club's other youth programs at sierraclub.org/youth.