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ICO Outreach: Your Gift of Nature to Kids

We are an amazing Club with many strengths and dedicated volunteers who share a passion for conservation and the outdoors. Our outings program continues to grow and offers an array of safe, fun and well organized outings to destinations near and far. But as many of us are running around and fighting crowds to find that perfect gift for a loved one, I want to take this moment to highlight the gift you have already given. It’s a gift that can’t be wrapped or bought, won’t fit under a tree (even if they had one) and is something that is remembered and enjoyed by children well into their adult life. What is this magical gift? It’s your Inner City Outings, our Club’s outreach program that provides local disadvantaged and underserved youth a simple Saturday day hike to a nearby nature center, a first night in a tent at a state park, a few hours of environmental learning/service work pulling invasive plant species or making seed balls, a chance to paddle a canoe or kayak and when we’re really lucky and have the funds, a long weekend to a “far away place” like Palo Duro Canyon State Park or even a rare but amazing backpack trip in the Pecos Wilderness.

Not all Sierra Club’s offer an ICO program. I’ve talked with members of Sierra Club groups in other cities who love the idea of ICO and want to start a program in their area but then can’t come up with enough volunteers who are willing to come to monthly meetings, do fundraising, don’t mind (or at least understand the necessity for) the bit of extra training, criminal background checks, paperwork and reports required. Next year our Dallas ICO will reach a milestone – our 25th anniversary. Through the years of tight funding and other challenges, volunteers have given up a few of their Saturdays or weekends to give kids a chance to unplug, get off the cement, away from the noise and challenges of their difficult neighborhoods to explore nature firsthand. For many of these kids an ICO outing is the first time they’ve seen or driven over the Trinity River, let alone traveled to a destination a half hour or hour outside Dallas. And when we’re on trail something as simple as a caterpillar or yes, pile of scat can start a conversation about the importance of nature, conservation and the fun of exploring for nature’s clues of what animals may live in that area. And with magnifying jars to see bugs and binoculars to see birds – oh, the fun!

At a recent national ICO meeting one of the staff from the Club’s Military Families group (part of our new Mission Outdoors initiative – more on that later) reminded us how much society has changed by asking this simple question: how many of us as kids went on that bike ride to nowhere or walk in the woods or ravine in our backyard or friend’s house down the street? As you’d imagine, most everyone in the room raised their hand. Most of today’s kids don’t grow up with that same opportunity to just be a kid and explore in the woods, fostering their imagination, curiosity about nature and even self confidence. Today those same activities we could choose to do most every day as a kid are no longer safe, there aren’t any green spaces close enough to their homes or kids are in a childcare situation until dinner because the single parent or grandparent rearing them is at work late. Many of us in the Club share a love of the outdoors partly, perhaps mostly because of fond experiences we had as kids… going to a summer camp, scouting programs through our school, the tree house shared with neighborhood kids (if you were in on the secret password needed to enter), the kickball game with different trees as bases, the creek or lake down the road from Grandma’s house. My alarm clock during my grade school years was a pair of woodpeckers in the large oak tree outside my bedroom window. How many kids in low income housing have the many outdoor opportunities like we had, or even one of them?

Last week at our ICO end of the year dinner I read some statistics I’d gathered from our ICO efforts this past year. We had 15 outings which included almost 150 kids on 200 “kid days” of fun. Those outings were made possible by 7 leaders and 13 volunteers who, not counting all the time to organize the trips, gather gear and grub, gave just under 1,100 volunteer hours. Our outings included kids age 6 – 18 from Jubilee Park and Community Center (southeast Dallas near Fair Park), Pegasus School (downtown Charter school) and Peters Colony (low income housing, north Farmers Branch). All of these outings were provided at no cost to the youth. My heartfelt gratitude to fellow leaders Giri Akkaraju, Kyle Cotten, Lynn Marple, David McCalib, Kim Osborne and Glenn Squire. Also a special thanks to all the amazing volunteers who share their passion for nature and give their valuable time to ICO. When you receive your January 2012 issue of Sierra magazine, check out our picture on page 83!

So, as we end 2011 and think of all the conservation battles and struggles we’ve gone through, you can still smile knowing that because of Dallas Sierra Club’s ICO program, we’ve shared the gift of nature with a lot of deserving kids, our future conservationists and tree huggers. And since kids say it best, I’ll leave you with a few quotes from kids on our outings:

“I didn’t know all this nature stuff could be so much fun”! (boy from Jubilee)

and, when seeing the Pecos Mountains for the first time, a high school girl said with tearful eyes:

“I’ve seen this kind of thing on TV but I didn’t think it could be real. It’s even more beautiful than I could imagine”.

Interested in volunteering with or donating to ICO? Contact Liz Wheelan. For meeting information please also sign up for our ICO list serve.

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