City youths take a walk in the woods

Program teaches children about conservation, offers outdoor experience

January 21, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

On a frozen trail deep in West Baltimore's Leakin Park, where the view was of bare trees highlighted by a fading winter sun, a question popped into Markita Harris' head.

"What do you do if you're lost in the woods?" asked the 11-year-old sixth-grader from Canton Middle School in East Baltimore.

Eric Rice, a Sierra Club member hiking the trail with Markita and two of her schoolmates, explained that there were two choices: stay put until someone finds you, or walk in one direction until you reach a road.

Their exchange, on a recent winter weekend afternoon, came during one of several events sponsored by Sierra Club members to provide outdoor experiences for kids who might not otherwise have them.

Called Inner City Outings, the treks are part of a wider program of the San Francisco-based environmental group.

The Baltimore area program -- a joint project of the city and Howard County Sierra Club chapters -- has just begun its second year.

It was launched by Sierra Club members Beth Ruekberg, a history teacher at Garrison Forest School, and Bob Burchard, professor emeritus of microbiology at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

With $3,000 grants each from the Abell Foundation and the Baltimore Community Foundation, Sierra Club members began working with kids from Canton Middle School and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Central Maryland in January 1999.

"We're trying to give these kids an opportunity to see places they might not normally see and understand why they're so special," explained Ruekberg.

"Part of the program is learning about elements of the environment," she added. "Part of it is learning to work together."

Besides benefiting the children, Burchard said the program also advances the Sierra Club's conservation mission, exemplified by its motto of how to act in the wilderness: "Leave only footprints."

In its first year, Baltimore Inner City Outings made 24 trips, with about a dozen kids per trip. In August, the group became involved with another group, the Hope Support Center in West Baltimore, which works with children who have a parent or sibling with HIV/AIDS.

Yvonne Leacock, executive director of the Hope Center, called Inner City Outings a "bonus for the children. While they're having fun, they're going to get some valuable lessons about the environment."

Julieta Tord, program director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, which stresses one-on-one relationships, said Inner City Outings is her organization's only group mentoring program.

The Leakin Park trip included practice pitching tents, preparing for overnight trips, and a map-and-compass activity with an interlude for a lunch of sloppy joes cooked over a gas stove.

"We're hoping to get you to have some skills that will allow you to enjoy being out in the woods more," said Mickey Allison, a Sierra Club member on the trip.

At first, the dozen kids from Canton Middle School made it clear that what they would enjoy most was being warmer. But by the time they were erecting tents, they had forgotten the chill.

"Where's the front [of the tent] going to face?" asked John Dobbins, 13.

"Down the hill, at the beautiful tree," suggested Kellie Morris, 12.

Abraheim Abukhler, 13, was on his third Inner City Outings trip.

Dawnae Merez, 12, was making her first trip, because her friend Patricia Johnson, also 12, "begged me."

After lunch, navigating the park's trails, the kids received -- and offered -- wisdom in the woods.

"When you're walking in the bush, it's a good idea to walk a little behind somebody in case a branch or something snaps back," Rice said.

Not long after, Rice noticed a glove on a rock.

"Don't touch it. That might be a murderer's glove," cautioned Markita Harris, mindful of the park's reputation as a dumping ground for bodies.

The children also got a taste of the rigors of hiking on a long, uphill climb.

"We need bikes!" said Markita.

"My feet are going to be broken," said Patricia.

When they reached level ground with the end of the trail in sight, they were no longer complaining.

"This was fun," Patricia said, "I liked it."

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