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Inner City Outings


Tampa Bay Inner City Outings Kids Adapt in the Estuary
By Carol Kay

Licking the salt that condensed on the leaves of a red mangrove tree was just the first 'taste' of many lessons about adaptation that the West Tampa and West Plant City Boys and Girls Club got this past February deep in the estuaries of Tampa Bay. Biologist and outdoor educator at Hillsborough Community College, Pete Rossi, hosted the outing at Upper Tampa Bay Park in Tampa, Florida, along with Sierra Club's Inner City Outing (ICO) leaders Carol Kay and Hadrian Alegarbes. Pete showed the group up close how plants and animals have evolved in order to survive in the harsh salt water environment of the estuary. The particular adaptation of the red mangrove is unique - it "sweats" salt to rid its cells of excess salinity.

The kids hiked along the edge of the mangrove swamps enjoying the herons and egrets hunting for food and stepping aside as hundreds of tiny crabs scurried into their holes for protection. The group identified three different kinds of mangrove trees and learned how each has adapted to life with salt water. After the hike, everyone gathered up nets and pails and headed out to the shallow warm waters of the tidal flats to see what they could find. By groups, the children with the help of ICO volunteers, either cast a large net into the water and poured their "catch" into a pail, or shoveled and sifted sand through a screen.

Afterwards, back on land, Pete reached into the pails to show us what life forms lurked in the bay. "Did you know that you brushed your teeth with seaweed this morning?" Pete asked as he held up a long piece of green algae. He then explained that carrageenan, a derivative of seaweed, is found in everyday products such as toothpaste. Pete held up another perfect specimen: "The blue blood of this horseshoe crab is worth $15,000 an ounce! The blood is used to test for certain diseases in newborns." As Pete drew fish, shells, crabs, worms, and egg sacks out of the pails each item drew 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the captivated young audience. Afterwards all the creatures were returned to the Bay and we returned to the park shelters for a picnic, where no doubt we ate more carrageenan!

None of the youth on this outing live more than 10 miles from the water in Tampa Bay, but most of them never get a chance to get their feet wet. For most, this ICO trip was the first time they had ever experienced the ecology and adventure of the estuary in their own home city.

In Tampa Bay, Inner City Outings is getting close to 1,000 urban youth out of the city and into the woods a year. Thanks to a volunteer base of over 35 enthusiastic individuals they get to go hiking, canoeing, and camping in wild places, learning how to appreciate nature and become good stewards. To learn more about Tampa Bay ICO group or to make a donation, please their website. There are 50 volunteer-run ICO groups across the country. Find a group near you.

ICO Reflections
By Luis Omar Lopez

"Sometimes before I come out on these excursions I'm doubtful whether or not I'm going to have fun or if I should even come... and afterwards I'm always SO GLAD I DID COME!"

So said Bill, volunteer for San Diego Inner City Outings (ICO), after a trip to Wilderness Gardens Preserve with kids from Sherman Heights Community Center in Temecula, California.

Luis Omar Lopez, new volunteer, reflects on the magic of his first ICO trip in February.

Arriving a little early, I met the other volunteers - Bill, Shannon, Sheena, Jeremy, Mike and Carrie. All of us were first-timers except Bill. We had briefly traded names when two vans full of kids ranging from first grade to middle school drove into the parking lot along with Jim, our trip leader. Our little party had begun.

At first, you could feel minor tension between the volunteers and kids, as we shared silent, awkward smiles. However, the initial discomfort ended quickly. The kids got a jump into adventure when Bill ferried everyone in his SUV over the swiftly running creek at the start of the trail, and this first communal excitement blew off the static web that was keeping the kids locked into their own thoughts.

The kids mostly talked among themselves as we tromped along the trail. We volunteers pointed out nearby growth of lichen, various types of scat, dung beetles, Indian grinding stones, poison oak and anything that might pique the kids' interests. Slowly, everyone began to open up. At a small pond we found coots and mallards floating among the cattails and water skimmers scooting silently along the banks. The kids asked more questions now, calling to us by our first names as they pointed out mushrooms and crawdads.

Halfway through the hike it started to sprinkle. Ivan, the youngest kid in the group, had been waiting all day for rain. He looked like a tiny grinning gremlin in his oversized poncho. Ivan's happiness over the rain was contagious. He had that genuine simple joy in his eyes, so common in childhood, often rare in adulthood.

We stopped for a rainy lunch in a small green grove. By now, volunteers and participants had good connections as we shared goodies out of our lunches. Back on the trail, the mood grew peaceful. As we arrived back at the creek where we had begun, a completely different dynamic had taken hold. It had been just a couple of hours since we had started as polite strangers. In that short time we had grown into a goofing band of friends thanks to the beauty of nature and its ability to facilitate bonding between people across their seeming differences.

This time, the kids kicked off their socks and shoes and crossed the creek by themselves. Watching them, I imagined myself at their age, dreaming up some quixotic death-defying expedition as I forded the wild and mighty river. I knew these kids were coming away with something amazing.

One little girl, Ashley, kept making excuses to cross and re-cross the water. She was the smallest, quietest kid in the group, but hungry for adventure. She made me smile with pride when she scooped up a giant Jerusalem cricket without a trace of fear.

Our hike over, we said goodbye to the kids and began the trip home to get dry and warm and reflect upon the magic we had all experienced.

San Diego ICO is dedicated to providing positive experiences in the wilderness to underserved youth. Our goal is to open the minds of youth, helping them to appreciate the wilderness and develop a desire to protect it. Please visit our website. There are 50 volunteer-run ICO groups across the country. Find a group near you.

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