OPINION: Love for the outdoors is a gift that pays forward

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Ben Jealous

By Ben Jealous

Jackson Advocate Guest Writer

When we see a 75-year-old white man out in the woods with a group of Black and Brown kids from low-income neighborhoods, teaching them about nature, few of us assume he is there because that is where he feels most comfortable.

Probably even fewer of us assume many of those kids look just like the ones he grew up with in public housing projects more than 60 years ago. Rocky Milburn grew up as one of the few white kids in a mostly Black public housing development in southern Indiana. His family was very poor. They were still poor when they moved into an old farmhouse in the country. That was where Rocky fell in love with the outdoors. Even though his parents struggled financially – perhaps even worse than when they lived in the projects – Rocky did not care.

“We lived right across the street from a creek,” Rocky pronounces it “crick,” “and I spent my days running the fields. You can kind of say it was my drug at the time.” For more than 25 years, Rocky has been an Outings Leader with the Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) program in Tampa, Florida. The program takes youth from underserved communities on outings such as camping and canoe trips and visits to the beach. Rocky says, “Many of these kids live two miles from the beach but have never seen the ocean.”

His own experience has taught Rocky the importance of sharing his love of the outdoors. When the kids stand around Rocky and learn from him about nature, they do not see his age or his race. They see his heart. And they know his heart understands them and the challenges they are facing because he is from the same type of place. People like Rocky who serve as nature’s ambassadors to young people, and people of any age who are nature-deprived, are heroes. The kids in his program learn how to appreciate and be good caretakers of nature. They experience firsthand the lessons nature has to teach us; how being outdoors benefits both our physical and mental health.

And they carry these lessons with them throughout their lives. Levi Randolph attended the Academy Prep Center of Tampa, which has a partnership with the ICO program. While at Academy Prep, a private middle school designed to give bright children from low-income families top-notch educational opportunities, Levi went on his very first camping trip: an outing led by Rocky Milburn. Now an adult, Levi is an Outings Leader with the Tampa ICO group alongside Rocky.

Levi is paying forward his experience. He is pursuing a career working with animals and investing his time to make sure other kids from his old neighborhood and school get the same chance he had to explore and enjoy nature. This is a story that repeats itself in families and communities in every pocket of our country. And we should encourage and celebrate it.

As someone who comes from a long line of outdoors enthusiasts who passed the love of nature on to me, I try to do the same for my kids. Whether we are skiing in the winter, paddling and fishing in the summer, or visiting national parks year round, I try to do my part to make sure my family stays connected to the great outdoors. Everyone can do this, whether it is a community affair, a family affair, or both. 

Vedia Barnett is a disabled Air Force veteran. After suffering a minor stroke, it was reconnecting with the outdoors and her love of nature that gave her a renewed sense of purpose to get back on her feet. “Just hearing the birds and feeling the sun on my face, it was like giving me life back.” Now Vedia works with Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors campaign, getting other women veterans outdoors.

She recounts one woman who left the service in the 1970s: “This was the first time she felt like she was in community with veterans who looked like her. And I think It’s important even for veterans to understand that all these lands are for us – they’re for everybody.” Vedia’s mom, a Marine Corp veteran, has also gotten involved, bringing senior women veterans in their 70s out to join the group’s outings.

This month is Earth Month. It is a perfect time to get outside. Bring your friends and family out there with you. If there is a local program near you that helps get kids – or anyone – outside who doesn’t typically have a lot of access to nature, consider chipping in your time. A love of nature is infectious. And it is one infection that is very worth spreading.

Ben Jealous is the Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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OPINION: Love for the outdoors is a gift that pays forward

By Jackson Advocate News Service
April 14, 2024