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Inner City Outings introduce wilderness through adventures

By Julie Lauterbach

As they descend from two 18-passenger vans, eight wide-eyed children from Spokane’s West Central neighborhood scan the snow atop Mount Spokane, looking for the dreaded, endangered Mount Spokane Snow Spider.

inner city outing
Inner City Outing in February

The adults accompanying the children for the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings snowshoe outing smile and shake their heads.

They know the story is one of Chris Bachman’s tactics to hold the children’s attention by engaging them with a pre-trip environmental lesson about the site’s background, wildlife and ecosystems.

Inner City Outings seeks to develop an appreciation for the outdoors in children who have few opportunities to be in the mountains, forests or on rivers.

Chris, one of the leaders and co-founders of the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings program (ICO), knows what it takes to engage youth in the outdoors.

In a world where children are over-stimulated with activities and technology, he and his partner at ICO, Curt Chambers, see a desperate need to provide eight- to 12-year-old children, especially those from an urban, poverty-stricken environment, with a healthy, active alternative.

Chris, now ICO’s project director, was born in Blythville, Ark.His father was in the Air Force, so his family moved several times.

The constant moves ensured his exposure to diverse ecosystems.  While studying biological science at Southern Illinois University, he began to hike and backpack.

Chris’ inspiration to start Inner City Outings came from becoming a father and seeing his children enjoy the outdoors.

Curt grew up in Eagle River, Alaska, where a major wilderness area was his backyard.

“It instilled in me a love for the outdoors,” said Curt, who moved from Alaska to Colorado for his undergraduate work.  He later earned a master’s in social work at Eastern Washington University.

“I’ve worked as a social worker for 25 years, and I’ve seen the healing power of wilderness when you unplug kids from their regular environment,” he said.

The program grew out of a conversation in 2004, when Curt was on local Sierra Club board.  That summer, he traveled to gather information from other ICO programs.

He met Chris at a Sierra Club gathering in November, and the idea took flight.

They began paperwork in 2005, and by the summer of 2006, as part of the Upper Columbia River Group of the Sierra Club, Spokane’s ICO had its first outing.

“We took 12 children with us and hiked from Bowl and Pitcher to Devil’s Toenail in Riverside State Park,” Chris said.  “Not one of the children had been there before, even though it’s in the West Central neighborhood backyard.”

That first outing reinforced the group’s mission to provide the youth of the West Central neighborhood of Spokane with opportunities to experience, learn about, and enjoy the outdoors.

The Spokane ICO, which has completed 20 outings, relies on donations, grants, community support and volunteer leaders.  It requires time and energy to organize outings and recruit participants.

For its size and number of volunteers, the program has set standards for other starting groups.

“We’re doing well, but that’s not enough,” Chris said.

As the program has grown over two years, outings are having positive, noticeable impact in the West Central community, they said.

For example, Chris and Curt give participants responsibility, treating them like persons rather than children.

“We say ‘no’ as little as possible. Too many hear ‘no’ at home, before they even have a chance,” said Chris. “We try to facilitate a way in which they can get what they want, where they can ‘earn’ it.  In other words, we say ‘yes’ as much as possible.”

One participant from last year, for example, had to be taken aside in her first outing and have the rules and expectations explained to her again.  For the remainder of that trip, an adult volunteer stayed with her, walking her through the steps and listening to bits and pieces of her story.

By the fourth trip, Chris said, “she blossomed.”

“We need to treat the children with respect and let them have fun,” Curt added.  “There are expectations, but by allowing them to have fun, we can reinforce positive behavior.”

The concept of letting children to have fun and enjoy their childhood is one of the driving missions of the ICO program.

Both Chris and Curt lament over the current situation for many of today’s youth, who grow up in an urban setting, whose parents both work full-time and who “have little opportunity to step outside and take in the wonders and beauty of the natural world,” said Chris.

Curt feels children grow up too fast, over-stimulated with too many activities—music lessons, sports, art lessons, plays, TV and other activities—instead of having positive time with parents. 

With urban development, there is less free, wild space. People have to drive to “the outdoors,” Curt said, noting that this dynamic puts pressure on families and reduces family time.

He added that some children and youth are becoming “parentified,” taking the role of parent in caring for younger siblings.

These issues are behind Chris’ and Curt’s commitment to Inner City Outings and their desire to influence the lives of youth.

“Throughout history, strong environmental advocates, have had some sort of pivotal experience in their youth,” Chris explained. “So we take children outside to provide a positive experience and build future advocates for the environment.”

The adventures can be scary for some participants, especially those for whom the outings are the first time they have experienced some activities. Both Chris and Curt, however, always know the areas where they take the groups and scout them in advance.

Curt said they want to take the children “out of their comfort zone” and “break down some of the myths and untruths about nature,” but do it in a way that the children feel safe, even in a place new to them.

“That’s part of the magic that allows them to focus and suspend their disbelief in some stories,” he said, such as “the story of the Mount Spokane Snow Spider.”

Chris first used this story at the beginning of February’s snowshoe trip.  Because the children were focused on looking for the snow spider, they saw other things, like a pileated woodpecker tapping into a snow-covered pine tree.

The discovery and enjoyment of new and different environments keeps the participants coming back for other outings, such as canoeing the Little Spokane River or participating in an outdoor adventure ropes course.

Eventually, Chris and Curt would like to have more outings each year and reach out to other neighborhoods and agencies.

To do that they need more volunteers like Jace Bylenga, an AmeriCorp Vista volunteer and Gonzaga University’s environmental outreach coordinator, who is providing new leadership.

“I connect environmental issues with poverty issues,” Jace said.

He believes children need to engage in the world outside the human-modified environment. So he seeks to connect the Inner City Outings with other organizations.

Chris said his motivation is from his heart, a feeling, a spiritual connection with nature. 

“If I can communicate that feeling to one child, that’s enough,” he said.

Curt, who attends the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, points to people’s need to have fun and enjoy themselves.  When they enjoy themselves, people are more likely to learn and perform at a higher level, he believes.

For both Chris and Curt, the outdoors is where they have the most enjoyment.

“If you believe in something,” Chris said, “and in my case it is being in the outdoors and protecting it, you should advocate for it.  Individual actions affect the world.

“So we should stand up for the things we believe in to make our community and the world a better place,” he said.

For the West Central neighborhood children who have participated in even one Inner City Outing, ICO leaders believe the difference made in their lives will be remembered in their adulthood.

For information, visit www.sierraclub.org/ico/spokane.