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Homefront | Youth in Wilderness | Bivalve Mollusks | Express Yourself

Out of the City, Into the Wild

by Reed McManus

Kids heading off for two-week-long summer camp with the San Francisco-based Seven Tepees Youth Program pack some familiar gear: a flashlight, a sleeping bag, a backpack. But equally important for these adventurers is the baggage they leave behind. Seven Tepees' participants are at-risk, inner-city youth, aged 11 to 16, for whom domestic violence, poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, and delinquency are everyday issues, and the joys of camping, hiking, and nature discovery seem as remote as a distant planet.

Funded in part by the Youth in Wilderness Project (a joint effort of the Sierra Club and The Sierra Club Foundation), Seven Tepees introduces youth to outdoor activities that most Sierra Club families take for granted--and consider essential to their understanding of the world. But it's not simply a matter of dropping kids off at a trailhead with a few granola bars and a full water bottle. These students are under assault in their daily lives, so the Seven Tepees program hopes to help them for five years, offering field trips and natural-resources education workshops after school and on weekends, an annual excursion in Yosemite, and camp each summer. (Few of these kids have ever been out of the city, much less to wilderness.) Helping them make that long-term commitment despite overwhelming odds requires adult mentors, volunteer tutors in the schools, and the involvement of parents and other family members at every juncture.

So it's no surprise that summer camp, held at Hidden Villa Camp (another Youth in Wilderness grant recipient) in bucolic Los Altos Hills south of San Francisco, is not your normal two weeks in the woods. When I arrive, the kids have just completed their daily hour-long group "reflection," this one on race relations. According to the multicolored activities calendar posted in the center of camp, other workshops during their stay will cover gender conflicts and the prison-industrial complex. That's in addition to lighter introductions to solar cooking, wool spinning, and cheese making, as well as the usual nature hikes, barbecues, and daily swims in the camp pool.

The success of Seven Tepees' intensity can be measured: Of the 18 original participants in the four-year-old program, just three have dropped out, and only because their families moved out of the area. Or you can just talk to the kids. There's the affable 16-year-old who eagerly thrusts out his hand in greeting and tells me he hopes to be a camp counselor one day. You'd never guess that he comes from a broken home beset by mental illness and had, until recently, been struggling in school. Seven Tepees' director Tim Daniels tells me of a young man who had recently watched his mother shoot his abusive stepfather dead in the living room--but after summer camp was raving about the sunsets he saw from atop nearby Black Mountain during a three-day backpacking trip. These kids may not all grow up to be park rangers, but they've been introduced to a refreshingly new world, and that perspective may help them survive the urban wilds.

Seven Tepees is one of about 150 outdoor-learning and wilderness programs for disadvantaged youth aided this year by grants from the Club's Youth in Wilderness Project, which also works to strengthen California state support of outdoor environmental education. (A year old, Youth in Wilderness is currently limited to Northern California, but hopes to fund projects in other states within a few years.)

For more information, call the Youth in Wilderness Project at (415) 977-5589, e-mail, or go to the program's Web page at To find out more about Seven Tepees, contact Seven Tepees Youth Program, 1333 Balboa St. #3, San Francisco, CA 94118; (415) 752-8733; e-mail

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