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The Planet
'Aren't We the Lucky Ones?'

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Inner City Outings program plants seeds, inspires tears

By Li Miao

Six months into his training as a youth leader, 16-year-old Chris Nicholson moved from the back of the pack to lead an inner-city youth group on a dayhike in the Catskills. Seeing his determination, adult volunteers from Sierra Club's Inner City Outings Program (ICO) had "tears in their eyes," according to ICO organizer Kate Purcell.

A Long Way from Home: Clockwise from top: On a trip organized by New Haven ICO, students from New Haven Co-op High School enjoy a scenic view of the Adirondacks in northern New York. A young participant on a Tucson ICO trip kicks back at the Grand Canyon. New York ICO participants celebrate a successful trek up Bear Mountain in Harriman State Park, New York.

An all-volunteer program, ICO provides outdoor experiences and cultivates leadership skills among urban youth who might not otherwise have these opportunities. With 46 groups in the U.S. and Canada, ICO logged 863 trips this year with kids from inner-city schools and youth agencies.

In New York, the volunteer pool has tripled in size since September 11, 2001. Youth agency demand for ICO trips is high, but the New York group can only take on a handful of additional agencies each year given the ongoing relationship it develops with agency staff and kids. Some agencies, like the Family Academy of Harlem and the Floating Hospital of New York City, have been involved with ICO for more than a decade through partnerships developed by ICO leaders Marc Becker and Ray Greenwell, respectively. For its work with the children of incarcerated mothers, the New York ICO group won an Outstanding Service Award from the Women's Prison Association.

This past October, the group organized its first annual hike-a-thon in upstate New York, involving more than 200 participants and big-name sponsors like Patagonia and The North Face. More than $10,000 was raised, all of which will go directly toward operating costs for future ICO trips.

Green Guides is a program developed by Kate Purcell to teach leadership and wilderness skills to teenagers from agencies that partner with the New York ICO group. With relatively few faces among the volunteer leadership resembling their clientele of African American, Latino, and Asian youth, adult ICO volunteers are working with teens like Chris Nicholson to train the next generation of leaders.

"We're hoping that when they're out in the real world, they'll stay involved and become ICO leaders," said Craig Meisner, New York ICO co-chair.

The Miami ICO group has also developed a Youth Leader Program, with the long-term goal of drawing leaders from the communities being served. Youngsters in this program receive training in backpacking, canoeing, and navigation skills, as well as guidance from adult mentors. Since its inception last spring, the program has involved youth leaders closely in the decision-making process.

"Not only are the kids learning, but the adults are learning, too-about all the ways that kids communicate," remarked Mark Walters, one of the mentors in the Youth Leader Program.

ICO groups in Florida have been highly responsive to the particular needs of the region. Drowning is a leading cause of death among children in Miami, so ICO leaders obtained a grant to provide swimming lessons for kids from two youth agencies. After completing the first class, the 12 "pollywogs" and 4 "guppies" who participated opted to continue taking lessons.

The five Florida ICO groups serve a diverse population that includes African American, Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Puerto Rican youth, among others. In Orlando, participants' parents are often migrant workers from Mexico and Central America.

The Florida ICO program has adopted Highlands Hammock State Park, with an ICO-designated trail that has been maintained by ICO youth and leaders since the first service project there in November 2001. Other service trips have included river cleanups on Earth Day, non-native plant removal, and the planting of mangrove seedlings at Virginia Key, just south of Miami Beach.

Across the country, ICO groups have collaborated within their regions to organize more extensive trips called IntraRegional Outings. For example, in the Southwest, ICO participants from several locales visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Groups in the Western Region journeyed together through five ecosystems along the coast of California, learning camping and photography skills along the way.

In the Midwest Region, ICO leader John Pulver "acted as a cheerleader" to keep everyone involved during the planning process. Groups from six Midwestern states and Toronto, Ontario, met in Chicago, carpooled 400 miles, then sailed to Michigan's Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Besides weathering a stormy canoe trip their first day on the island, participants hiked and camped, learned from park rangers and wildlife specialists, and were delirious upon sighting their first moose at base camp.

Deborah Rudy, the Mid-Atlantic representative on the ICO steering committee, helped develop the IntraRegional Outings program, and hopes to expand it to more regions. "It's a massive undertaking," says Rudy of the ICO leaders who plan these trips. "It's an incredible person who gives up tremendous amounts of personal time to do this."

This kind of dedication was recognized by the Sierra Club when it honored Allison Chin with the 2002 One Club Award. A volunteer in the Loma Prieta Chapter since 1988, Chin served on the national steering committee for eight years.

"We are motivated by 'planting seeds' and do not necessarily expect to see the changes that we hope will grow from our efforts," says Chin. "So aren't we the lucky ones to witness the payoff time and again!"

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