Por Javier Sierra
When life's cards were dealt, Juan Martínez got a lousy hand.
Looking out his window, this young resident of one of Los Angeles' most dangerous barrios saw a bleak landscape of poverty, gang violence, school dropouts and shattered futures.
None of the young people living on his block had graduated from high school. Most of them had dropped out. Many already had several children of their own. Many others were in prison, and some had died in gang wars.
Juan might have gone down this same road.
But when Juan was 15, he found "the spark of hope that I very much longed for." That spark was an outing to the Grand Teton Mountains, Wyoming, as part of a program sponsored by the Sierra Club.
"This experience provided me with Mother Nature's therapy for the soul," says Juan. "It is there that I found my passion in life. It was my first time to experience nature, first time away from home, from the city, first time to fly on a plane. It was even where I had my first kiss!"
There are hundreds of thousands of Latino youth in this country who have never seen the ocean or visited the mountains. For them, Nature is just one more word that does not necessarily need to be capitalized. But for Juan, it does.
"There I realized that life was beautiful. I saw that the world was not just concrete, streetlights or smog-infested cities. I remember a day being less than 20 feet away from a bison, and having to pinch myself to realize that I was not watching 'Nature' on PBS."
Teens from rival Los Angeles high schools -- Dorsey (Juan's alma mater) and Crenshaw -- attended Teton Science School at the same time. The school rivalry extended far beyond the typical sport team jealousies. Tensions between the schools often erupted in gang violence. But at Teton, out in Nature, Juan said that the barriers fell away. People opened up to each other.
"It's out there where trees don't care what race you are, but they still share their shade; water doesn't care what kind of income level you come from, but still it provides life"; and with a sense of humor, he adds: "And believe me, mosquitoes really don't care who you are, they still suck your blood."
Juan's example proves that Nature's experience has the potential to change lives, as educators, parents and outdoors enthusiasts will attest to. Law enforcement officials have also observed that at-risk youth benefit from Nature educational programs.
In fact, since its foundation in 1892, the Sierra Club has considered outings a fundamental activity to better "explore, enjoy and protect the planet," as its motto reads. Its founder, naturalist John Muir, fell in love with Nature's wonders and considered outings a balm for the soul.
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike," he wrote.
Ever since then, the Club's outings have transformed millions of people, like Juan, who now is an advisor to Outward Bound Adventures, Inc., a Pasadena group that offers outings to the wilderness for inner city youth. He guides other young people in Nature. Also he is the first high school graduate in his family ever and now attends Pasadena Community College. His dream is to become an environmental lawyer.
And that is not all. His 15-year-old sister, following on Juan's footsteps, has obtained an Outward Bound scholarship to spend 22 days in the Sierra Nevada this summer.
Fortunately for Juan, in the game of life, he found the Nature card.
Javier Sierra es columnista del Sierra Club. El Sierra Club es la mayor y más antigua organización de base medioambiental en Estados Unidos.
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