Melaina Sharpe has long loved hiking and being in the outdoors, so when she started looking around for places to volunteer, Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program was the right fit.
"I liked the idea of taking kids into nature to show them a different environment than the one they see day in and day out," says Melaina, an ICO volunteer since 2007. "I also had a fondness for hiking since my mom used to take us hiking at Sleeping Giant Park in New Haven, Connecticut. We would hike to the castle at the top, eat lunch, and walk back down."
Inner City Outings is a community outreach program that provides opportunities for urban youth and adults to explore, enjoy, and protect the natural world, and Melaina is an ICO leader with the Washington, D.C., chapter.
"I grew up in a single-parent household in an urban area where I helped my mom with my brother and my sister. After I joined the Army and I settled into my adult life routine, I wanted to give back to the community, especially to the kids who were growing up in areas like the one I grew up in," she says.
The Sierra Club has 50 volunteer-run ICO groups spread throughout the United States. Melaina's been active with the Washington, D.C., chapter and the Louisville, Kentucky, chapter when she lived there. Every year, ICO groups nationwide conduct more than 800 outings that serve approximately 14,000 youth, helping these participants learn how to enjoy the outdoors safely and responsibly.
Melaina especially loves watching kids' reactions to outdoor experiences they've never had before, be it with bugs, animals, trees, or just the noises of nature. "The joy I see in the kids gives me joy," she says. "It's great seeing them enjoying a walk in the woods, learning to paddle a canoe, and finding out they can sleep in a tent at night."
Getting kids outside is valuable for their health and well-being, and it inspires in them a long-term appreciation of the outdoors. One of the great satisfactions for Melaina and other ICO volunteers nationwide is seeing that kids who grow to love the outdoors are then moved to protect it, and many go on to become great leaders as they grow up.
And ICO has great benefits for the adult volunteers, too.
"Exposing kids to nature by hiking, paddling, camping, and more, provides me with a sense of fulfillment, a sense of community, and the opportunity to give back to kids who might not otherwise have a chance to participate in nature trips," says Melaina.
She also hopes more active duty military and veterans become volunteers because it goes hand-in-hand with their values.
"If I may steal a great line from a Sierra Club Mission Outdoors staffer, he said that when he talks to military personnel about the Sierra Club, he frames it as: the Sierra Clubs loves the outdoors, a lot of military personnel love the outdoors, so let's talk about our love of the outdoors instead of our differences."
If you'd like to volunteer with Inner City Outings, check out the website for a group near you.
And if you're in the Washington, D.C., area on June 26, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (the Sierra Club is a founder) will be hosting a Kids, Youth, and the Great Outdoors Festival and Walk on the National Mall, which will feature some fun activities by ICO groups. The event is part of Great Outdoors America Week, a big tent advocacy week to protect and connect people to our public lands.
Space is limited, so RSVP now.