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July/August 2000 Planet Main
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More Wilderness for More Children

Club Program Gives Disadvantaged Youth New Chances to Learn About Nature

by Jenny Coyle

Until three years ago, wilderness could not have been further from Marlo Aleman's mind.

He'd walk through his San Francisco neighborhood worrying that a gang might mistake him for a rival. His dad is a janitor and his mom assists a disabled woman. His high school, Galileo Academy, draws students from the low-income Fillmore, Tenderloin and Chinatown districts, where 75 percent of the students are eligible for the subsidized lunch program. "Nature" was what Marlo experienced in nearby Dolores Park; true wilderness was something he saw only on television.

When he started high school, Marlo was a class clown, the kind of student who'd sit in the back of the class and lob comments into the room like little bombs, amused by the ensuing mayhem. He'd flunked out of half his freshman classes.

But his teachers saw promise in Marlo, who had so far avoided joining a gang. "He was a smart-ass, but he was a smart smart-ass," says English teacher Steve Hagler.

Hagler and fellow teacher Dana Erickson had co-founded an environmental education class called the Galileo Outdoor Adventures Program - or GOAPe (pronounced "go ape"). They convinced Marlo to join the program - a move that kept him in school.

GOAPe is a semester-long class that begins with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge - something 70 percent of the students have never done, Hagler says. They take day hikes in local state parks and go through a "ropes" course to build trust and self-confidence. After an 11-day wilderness expedition in the Sierra Nevada, they teach environmental education and ecology concepts to middle-school students, work on habitat restoration projects and coordinate coastal clean-ups.

"The class pushed me hard the first semester because I wasn't used to hiking," says Marlo. "But when I saw the wilderness, I fell in love. It opened my eyes to see a place that was so beautiful, but that without the proper skills and knowledge could be so dangerous."

Marlo stayed in the GOAPe program for five semesters. "If I hadn't 'gone ape' I wouldn't have graduated on stage like I did last week," he says. "I would have dropped out of school because it was so hard for me. I'm a lot better person now. I'm responsible and a good leader."

Hagler agrees. "Marlo went from being someone who stirs the pot on purpose, to someone who is a leader, who understands the value of cooperation. He does everything he can to keep a situation positive."

GOAPe is one of 34 programs selected to receive a grant from a new Sierra Club program called Youth in Wilderness. Launched in the fall of 1999, Youth in Wilderness recently awarded a total of $650,000 to programs that will involve 7,800 young people from low-income, disadvantaged families in Northern California. The goal is to provide quality outdoor environmental education programs to under-served youth. Two more rounds of grants will be made this year.

"Wilderness is for everyone," says program director Steve Griffiths. "If we're going to do a good job as environmentalists, then we need to make sure all of our citizens appreciate and enjoy nature."

To generate interest in the grant-making program, the Youth in Wilderness team - Griffiths, program coordinator Jackie McCort and program assistant Jenny Harbine - developed outreach materials in English, Spanish, Cantonese and Vietnamese. Working with an advisory committee, they talked to environmental educators, community groups and schools with a high percentage of students on the subsidized lunch program and encouraged them to apply.

The outreach worked: They got applications from inner-city schools, Girl Scouts, the YMCA, church groups, outdoor groups, poor rural schools - even groups that serve the children of men and women who are incarcerated or have AIDS.

Some want funding to expand existing programs or make them available to disadvantaged students, while others who have established programs see Youth in Wilderness grants as a means to fund a new idea.

In the meantime, Melinda Joyce, the Youth in Wilderness Sacramento representative, works to increase state-government support for outdoor environmental education.

Hagler at GOAPe could not be more pleased. "Getting kids into the wilderness allows us to level the playing field. It doesn't matter if you're the smartest or dumbest academically; what matters is if you've been paying attention. The consequence of not putting on long underwear is that you get your butt kicked by nature - not by some authority figure. And there's nothing like the confidence that gets built in the outdoors. I have kids come off a rappel and say, 'If I can come down a 60-foot cliff, I can do anything.'"

Marlo's story is not unusual, says Hagler. "He's the articulate one. What happened to Marlo happens on some scale to each kid in the program."

The best part, Marlo says, is teaching adults what he knows. "GOAPe gave me the chance to try something new, and it turns out I'm good at it. I can teach adults now. It's a pretty powerful feeling to teach someone who's older than you and have them appreciate it rather than look down on you."

Now that he's a high school graduate, Marlo says he's resting and figuring out his next move.

"I know for sure I'll find a way to make the outdoors part of my life," he says. "I don't want wilderness to be just a high school memory. I don't know how to do it, but I'll find a way."

"A New Frontier" for Kids: An Interview with Youth in Wilderness Program Coordinator Jackie McCort

Youth in Wilderness has been greeted with such enthusiasm. What took us so long?

It's one of those great ideas that was out there for a while. But we tend to focus on current brush fires - what's going on in Congress or the legislature, and other threats that seem more immediate. It's difficult to take a step back and figure out what we need to do now to make sure we'll have activists in the future. Our children are the future. Unless we help them experience the natural world, they're not going to value it or work to protect it. Some of the leaders of programs we're funding have said things like, "I've been thinking about this for years, but we didn't have money and I didn't know how to make this happen." Now they have the chance.

Why focus on this population - low-income, inner-city youths?

Most middle-class students will have some opportunities to be in nature, whether it's water-skiing on a lake with friends or camping in Yosemite with their families. But low-income youths are often trapped in an urban environment. Their families don't get into the outdoors, and their schools are struggling financially so there's no money for programs that offer outdoor environmental education.

Outdoor educators tell me that sharing the natural world with inner-city, low-income young people is especially rewarding because it's a new experience that has such a profound effect on them. A person's first time in wilderness can be very powerful.

Are we using outdoor education and the wilderness experience to create future environmentalists?

We're using them to create better people in general. Look at a student like Marlo Aleman, who credits an outdoor-education program with keeping him in school when he otherwise might have dropped out. But it's true, too, that he'll be more likely to work on behalf of protecting wilderness because he's been out there, and he knows how it makes him feel. Through outdoor education he's learned to value the environment.

Has the Sierra Club been able to bridge cultural gaps in the process?

Yes, and I think part of the reason is that we're working very closely with existing community groups. For instance, I've learned that Asian and Hispanic cultures and their activities are heavily family-oriented. The idea of a child - and in particular, a daughter - going away on an overnight camping trip is outside of their experience. If the Sierra Club just walked in and said, 'We're taking your kid on a camping trip,' then a lot of kids couldn't go. So it's important that we're funding community-based groups that these families can trust.

You've visited many of these programs. What sticks in your mind?

There's nothing like being there when the students arrive. The bus pulls up and the kids burst out. When you see kids from the inner city step off the bus, their faces lights up with excitement and wonder. Part of that is just being a kid, but it's also because it's a new frontier for them.

Will there be Youth in Wilderness programs outside of Northern California?

Northern California was a good place for a trial run, but now we've got our feet on the ground and we're ready to grow. We're hoping to look at all of California next year, and then expand our grant-making into a couple of other states, and eventually nationwide.

Getting Them Out There

In its first round of grants, Youth in Wilderness will provide outdoor experiences for nearly 8,000 disadvantaged youths. Two more rounds of grants will be awarded in 2000. Here's a sampling of the 34 programs receiving funding so far.

Catholic Charities, San Francisco Rita de Cascia Program

Homeless and marginally housed children will get the chance to hike, kayak and camp from coastal tidal zones to the highest reaches of the Sierra Nevada.

Estuary Action Challenge, Richmond Urban Creek Restoration Program

Third-grade students will adopt, study, clean up and restore their local urban creeks. They'll raise frogs in the classroom to be released back into creek homes, design materials to educate their communities about reducing runoff pollution and plant trees and wildflowers.

Girl Scouts Golden Valley Council, Clovis Sierra Adventurers

Girl Scouts from inner-city neighborhoods in Fresno and Modesto will enjoy a four-day camping experience. The girls live in poverty and crowded urban conditions and have never been camping; most of them are Hispanic or Hmong and have never been out of the city.

Merced Union High School District, Atwater Environmental Science Academy

Low-income youths - 40 percent of whom come from families that speak English as a second language - will go on two one-week backpacking trips on the south fork of the Merced River. They'll study hydrology, biology, fire fuels, archaeology, astronomy and outdoor writing. The program is a partnership of Yosemite National Park, the University of California and Merced
Union High School District.

Sacramento START (Students Today Achieving Results for Tomorrow) On the Wild Side

This 12-week after-school environmental education program serves fourth, fifth and sixth graders, 81 percent of whom are ethnic and racial minorities. The program concludes with a weekend camp-out in the Sierra foothills.

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