For Inner-City Kids, Time Spent Outdoors Builds Confidence
As a group of kids scrambled like lizards up a towering rock formation, Shantell Lacy stayed back in the shade. She swatted flying ants from a pile of backpacks and talked about her son, Jahvi.
“I’m scared of heights, but he’s a daredevil. He’ll climb the highest mountain,” she said about her 8-year-old, who’s a student at America’s Finest Charter School in City Heights. “He was trying to protect me, saying, ‘Be careful, mommy.’”
“I told her she might get stuck by a cactus,” Jahvi explained when he returned from his climb. “And she did.”
Lacy and Jahvi visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time this spring with Inner City Outings, a Sierra Club group that takes inner-city youth on hiking and camping trips free of charge. The local chapter works with kids from National City to Oceanside and has built a strong relationship with America’s Finest. Students there have gone on eight outings since February.
“We take out kids who live twenty blocks from the ocean and have never been to the beach before,” said Allan Fein, who founded the San Diego group in 1999. The program has been around since the 1970’s.
In City Heights, spending time outdoors can be difficult. The neighborhood has a shortage of parks—1.03 acres per 1,000 residents compared to 2.6 acres per 1,000 residents citywide, according to Health Equity By Design. And finding the time and money necessary to go camping or practice sports can be a challenge for families. Parents often work multiple jobs to make ends meet and raise children by themselves.
“That’s pretty much the same thing my mom did. She pretty much just worked constantly and we didn’t really do a lot of outings,” said Lacy, who grew up in City Heights. “I want it to be different with my kids so they can be more well-rounded and see different things.”
Lacy said it’s easy for her to get caught up in her daily routine. She’s a single mom of two who often works overtime in the health care industry. She said she rarely has time to take a breath between picking the kids up from school and putting them to bed.
“When I get home, it’s straight to the kitchen,” Lacy said.
She said a three-day camping trip was just what she needed to reconnect with her son.
“Just being together and having time away from all the civilization, not having to worry about school or work is nice,” Lacy said.
“That’s one of the things that nature gives you,” said Bill Tayler, a lawyer who co-chairs San Diego Inner City Outings. “Nature doesn’t have a plan and it doesn’t have an agenda. You find what you find and you do what you do.”
Tayler and the children found a scorpion, gopher snake and lizards at the national park. They also found plenty of boulders to play on.
Those discoveries helped them better understand schoolwork on the desert biome, said third grade teacher Jennifer Garfinkel. They also helped the kids gain confidence and a sense of independence that would follow them home.
“When they were first climbing on the rocks they were very hesitant, very scared of getting up too high,” Tayler said. “When we were having breakfast this morning, they were taking their hot chocolate up on the rocks and climbing all over. Just looking at 24 hours being here, their self-confidence has grown and their comfort level with being in this environment has completely shifted.”
That confidence was on full display during a hike on the second day. Near Skull Rock, a landmark rock formation in the park, the kids—not the adults—surveyed the best climbing routes for one another. They patiently waited as one of the students decided whether she could jump over a chasm in the rocks like her peers. She did, after several minutes of encouragement from the group.
Farther down the trail, the group made a bigger breakthrough.
Lacy, who stuck to the sandy trails on three previous hikes, cautiously made her way up a large boulder to join her son. At the top, Jahvi held her with both hands as she nervously found her footing. The two then took in the view.
Lacy said the trip showed her just how adventurous and caring her son is. Jahvi said he learned something, too.
“That she’s not exactly great at climbing on rocks.”