Almost Fearless

Creating Environmentalists: An Outdoor Outreach Program for City Kids

Outdoor experiences aren’t so far away for kids in New York City, thanks to the Sierra Club.

The club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) is a nationwide community outreach program active in 52 cities. Its mission is to provide youth from 8 to 18 with outdoor recreational opportunities, leadership training, environmental education and positive team experiences. Launched in 1981, NYC’s ICO is one of the largest in the country, working with 10 partner schools in the city.

A guiding principle behind ICO is that the wilderness exists as a resource for everyone. The program works together with public schools to overcome obstacles such as financial constraints or the need to organize transportation. It covers all trip expenses, transport and food, and works with 14 trip leaders to coordinate outdoor adventures every four to eight weeks. The goal is to organize three to eight trips per year with each school, involving students from 8 years old to high school seniors.

Some similar programs set a certain poverty threshold for kids to qualify, but not the New York ICO. “The goal of our program is giving access to students to the outdoors who wouldn’t have it otherwise,” Katie George, chair of NYC ICO, told us. “And that’s it. While the majority of our kids come from poor neighborhoods, we’ve really focused on any kid who’s grown up in the city that doesn’t get access to the woods.” While 90 percent of the trips are Saturday day hikes, there are also opportunities for ice-skating, white-water rafting, canoeing and camping. “Sometimes our trips are just showing them parks in their own city—going to Staten Island and showing them you can camp there. We know so many kids who live 10 blocks from Central Park and they’ve never been in it.”

Every group is guided by a leader, of course, and since the Sierra Club is a nonprofit, 100 percent of the leaders are volunteers. Any adult who’s interested in volunteering can apply. New volunteers must undergo background screening, first-aid certification and orientation, but the process is relatively simple. “We’re always looking for new partner schools or agencies to go out on trips with us, too,” Katie said.

Katie was proud to mention ICO’s youth leadership program, which trains adolescents interested in becoming certified leaders themselves. “We’ve developed a program which they can apply to and commit to going on trips all throughout the year. Those trips tend to be much more ambitious, like three-day urban backpacking trips, where they backpack through the city through all five boroughs, or a six- to seven-day skiing and snowboarding trip, or a six-day backpacking trip. Our goal with them is to get them certified as Sierra Club trip leaders once they turn 18. They help co-lead trips with some of our younger groups.”

This winter, NYC ICO will host the Adventure Film Festival for the fifth year in a row. Based in Boulder, Colo., but presenting in New York, the festival will feature short adventure films that focus on diverse people experiencing the outdoors. All proceeds go to ICO, to support the program year-round. This year, festival organizers are doubling the size of their theater.

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Editors @ almostfearless.com