The Angeles Chapter, the Club’s largest, already had an established ICO program. But in Orange County, says Hellman, “I saw a void. Most people don’t realize we have pockets of lower-income kids, and some of those kids have never experienced our local natural wonders. Recently, we took some kids out picking up litter on the beach. There were crabs all over the place. They’d never seen crabs before. They thought they were cockroaches.
Founded by the San Francisco Bay Chapter in 1971, the Inner City Outings program now has 49 groups in the United States, and last year took more than 10,000 low-income inner city youth on trips to the wilderness. ICO is volunteer driven and staffed (with the exception of two support staffers in San Francisco)— more than 400 volunteers led or helped with trips in 2005.
In January 2003, the chapter newsletter published a story Hellman wrote, and a month later ten people showed up and started building the new ICO group.
Though Hellman gets up at four in the morning for a half-hour of Pilates, bicycles to her job at Hyundai Motor Company, and tutors kids in math and science several evenings a week, she considers her life pretty easy, always has been. That’s why she took on ICO. “I embrace struggle. Why live if you don’t have something to struggle for?”
ICO arranges most of its outings by hooking up with schools or social service agencies. Hellman connected with Garden Grove’s Santiago High School Environmental Club and signed up 20 students to participate in a “Youth Can Conserve” coastal conservation outing series funded by the California Coastal Commission. (She wrote the grant, natch.)
The club members recently presented their findings and recommendations for coastal protection to local city officials. One group did a “fantastic DVD,” another team performed a skit on overfishing. Hellman hopes that now the kids will bring their presentations to the elementary schools.
Hellman, who led more than half of the outings herself over the past several years, acknowledges that she can’t keep up the pace. “I did it to set a track record. As we’ve recruited more leaders, I’ve done less.”
One way she entices potential leaders is to invite them on an outing with homeless kids. “Volunteers are sometimes in tears afterwards and want to donate clothes and such to the homeless shelter. These kids are popular customers. I’ve always really liked going with them, partly because they’re a mix of ages and are always courteous.”
Though Hellman played a key role in founding the Orange County ICO group, along with “founding buddy” Steve Rotan, and serves as secretary and grantwriter, she says she learned from her two stints in the Peace Corps—Sierra Leone in the mid-1980s and the Dominican Republic ten years later—“to never put myself in positions of power. To maximize the project’s sustainability, always get someone else to be the leader. And make sure you have a leadership succession plan.”
The REI award comes with a $20,000 grant to the ICO program.
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