For many years I have been loosely involved, through holiday volunteer days and sporadic donations, with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless and those at risk for becoming homeless. My connection with the organization has deepened however, since I started volunteering with the organization’s Development and Fundraising teams on a regular basis. I have become quite a student of the unique challenges of homeless population, particularly the disadvantaged teens that find themselves, at the peak of their middle and high school years, living off donor funds at a homeless shelter. These kids are an inspiration and all the volunteers and staff are motivated to provide them with every possible opportunity to reach beyond their circumstances. What these kids need are opportunities to see the world beyond their neighborhood, to understand that the way it has been can change and that they too can make a real and meaningful difference. These kids, like all kids, just need to know that they matter and that there is a big, wide world waiting just beyond their door.
So, they were on my mind when I read the recent announcement in Philanthropy News Digest about Toyota USA Foundation’s decision to award The Nature Conservancy a two-year $3.1 million grant in support of the LEAF program, Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future. Established nearly twenty years ago in New York City, the program works to expand to other major cities and triple the number of students served. With a focus on paid internships in nature preserves and educational opportunities, LEAF seeks to introduce urban children to nature and develop future environmental stewards. This summer, interns will work on preserves in eleven states, assisting in land management, public outreach and research activities and, oh yea, there will be kayaking too!
My second thought after reading the press release (the first was how I could get my homeless teens involved) was that the operation reminded me of another worthy program, Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings. With fifty volunteer-led ICO groups across the country, Sierra serves about 14,000 urban youth every year, providing many with their first introduction to wilderness and environmental accountability. In a past life, before my Development position at the shelter (and more significantly, before grad school, you know, back when I had free time) I volunteered with my local Sierra ICO Group. Seeing these kids, most of whom had never been hiking or camping, get outside and play was beyond satisfying. So too was the ongoing discussion about Spanish moss: an air plant that is neither moss nor Spanish. It took a few hours, but I think they finally got it.
These are two great programs: Sierra’s ICO and TNC’s LEAF. If you know of others please share. I will get to work and look into it because the kids I work with deserve time in nature, time to be free and an opportunity to recognize their obligation and potential as environmental stewards.