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Detroit City Teenagers Transformed By Nature

by Jane Califf

A number of years ago, Barb Conover was eagerly looking forward to attending the Annual Weekend Camp Out sponsored by the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club.  Little did she know she would confront a difficult challenge from alienated teenagers – a challenge that would result in an amazing experience.


The Sierra Club, one of the oldest and largest environmental organizations, was formed to “explore, enjoy and protect” the natural world. It has grassroots chapters in all 50 states (and Canada). Barb had been a leader in her home (Missouri) chapter for years, which, like Michigan and many other branches, has a similar outdoor event.


Included in their programs is one called “Inner City Outings” (ICO). Its main effort is to expose inner city youth to the natural world and its wonders, but also “to promote personal development by linking cultures, fostering respect of self and others… providing leadership skills…” The Sierra Club website elaborates on this in a video which states that they hope the wilderness experiences they provide help to develop decision-making skills, self-esteem, team-building skills and better relations between adults and children.


Barb was expecting to be “just another camper” but volunteered to teach canoeing after the planned instructor broke his ankle at the last minute. (She had taught canoeing for her home Chapter Camp Out in the past.) Her first Saturday morning class was the ICO kids.


The 20 African-American young people from inner-city Detroit were completely out of their element, coping with the strangeness of these woods – the bugs, cabins, and (to them, probably) incomprehensibly geeky hikers with binoculars and GoreTex parkas – by acting out their discomfort. Many were sullen, grouchy, and dismissive or combative, and in general did not mix with the approximately 150 white, middle-class “Sierrans.”


Barb was completely unprepared for this attitude. She started her canoeing instruction on land so she could teach basic technique without her students floating or paddling away. They were unhappy about being forced to wear life-vests; most seemed bored and disruptive, and not listening at all; much of the time she was breaking up paddle fights, not perfecting technique. The youngest kids “seemed to have an attention span of three seconds” and the older kids were real bullies, continually intimidating the younger kids (and Barb, to tell the truth). The two African American counselors who came with the children told Barb (who is white) to “just keep on talking.”


She wasn’t sure if anything she’d said reached any of the kids, but finally it was time to get into the water. None of the children had ever been in a boat before – or on open water – and few could swim; chaos ensued, several kids panicked, but eventually everyone was in. Although there was only a gentle breeze, barely perceivable onshore, the kids were no match for the effect of the wind on the ten 18-foot aluminum canoes.  By the time Barb and the poor guy in the ankle cast got in their canoe, the kids’ canoes were all plastered against the other side of the lake.  The instructors swiftly paddled over to help the stranded, terrified young people.


Unsurprisingly, the oldest kids were the worst off,  having refused to listen at all to how to use the paddle.  They were whacking ineffectually at the water, in no control of their boats, and helpless against the power of the wind. But delightfully, two of the smallest girls were in complete control of their canoe. Perhaps because they were at the bottom of their group’s “social hierarchy” they had actually listened and learned. By the time Barb reached them, they were paddling around the older, helpless teenagers saying, “You didn’t listen, did you? The ‘rules of the street’ don’t work here, do they? You’re the big guys and you can’t paddle. We know how because we listened.”


At first, the boys just looked at them, but one of them suddenly blurted out, “I don’t know what to do. Show me.” Then others chimed in, “Teach me, too.” The girls began to show them; Barb and the other teacher helped others. In 20 minutes, everyone was able to paddle their canoes even in the wind.


The formerly-stranded kids were enthralled with the sensation of being able to paddle and control their boats and couldn’t get enough, paddling all over the small lake for hours; they only came in when a bell was rung from the shore signaling lunch. As they entered the cafeteria, they shouted, “We can canoe!” Now they engaged the other campers: they sat among these strangers and ate lunch as part of the group, eager to tell stories of their new skill. The two girls became the heroes; the power structure had changed, as two of the weaker members of the group showed that listening and paying attention had its rewards.


After lunch, the kids tore out of the lunchroom and back into the canoes: they couldn’t get enough, only surrendering the canoes when it was time for the afternoon class. The sullenness was gone: “Look at that bird!” “I saw a fish!” Back on land, they now wanted to go on the hikes and wildflower walks. “They wanted to be included in everything,” says Barb.


“I believe,” she continued, “that they felt isolated when they first arrived, since this was so unlike anything they had experienced. They were the only African American campers, and they had never experienced nature before. Nature is transformative to anyone who allows it, but these kids got a crash course in its power. A breeze they could hardly feel had overpowered them and made them feel completely helpless. Their group’s social structure had been overturned by a breeze: the bullies had been the most helpless, and they learned that you can’t bully nature to get your way. Nature is bigger than humans; you have to work with nature. I felt deeply moved and privileged to watch the transformation of these kids.”


On the Sierra Club website where the ICO Program is explained, one of the counselors says, “Sometimes it takes being in a different setting to learn more about yourself,” and there are many other testimonials by counselors, staff and campers stating the positive impact that being in a woods, lake and/or pond setting can have on people.


Teachers can find out how they and their students can be part of such life-changing experiences by going to the Sierra Club website where you can find day trips, not only weekend events.

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