A Forest of Opportunities

As most of you know, I am an outdoor educator and nature instructor. Well, today was one of those days where I was super frustrated, but also inspired by a group of students who came to the Arboretum at Royal Botanical Gardens.

Okay, it was a very frustrating and challenging day. Two instructors, myself and G, and twenty grade 9 students. That is a really nice ratio for programming – a dream in fact. But these were at-risk students from inner city Hamilton. Big attitudes, some are gang members, and others are just desperately trying to cope with their impoverished life.

At the beginning of each field trip I usually engage in idol chit chat as they unload from the bus. It was super chilly this morning, so of course, being Canadian, I talked about the weather. I remarked how it might snow tonight, and the clouds and wind … one girl had a few layers and I asked if she was warm enough. She was, but remarked she “didn’t own a jacket” –  growth spurts you know. It is sad, because there are times when you know some information is reluctantly given and it was in the way she responded, you knew her family couldn’t afford the new jacket. She remained positive though, she had sweaters and she was really looking forward to being out of the city. She had never been outside of downtown Hamilton. 

Most students said that at their age (14) they had never been outside of Hamilton, ON and that they are not allowed outside because of the gang violence. We are talking Hamilton, Ontario. You know, right next to Burlington, Oakville and Milton; some of the most affluent areas in the province.

Last week we had a school visit where the kids were complaining about their brand new $300 shoes and “getting them dirty” – today I met a girl who lives 30 minutes away who told me her family couldn’t afford a new jacket. This is the dichotomy I see in my life as an outdoor educator.

Most of the students were amazing and engaged as we tried to teach them how to use the GPS units and find their geocaches.  They walked in circles, happily (albeit a bit frustrated with our ancient technology) but you could see how proud some of them were just having this opportunity.

But then there are always those few. Boys and girls with attitudes, the shoving and pushing, some on the verge of fights, and ‘getting up in ya face‘. A few kids verbally abusing each other, and others tipping over the bike rack which happened to have the centre’s manager’s bike still attached to it. So you know, by 45 minutes into a 4 hour program, it is going to be a challenging day. And yes, as it would be, some students decided to take off because they just didn’t want to participate (you know, skip school except they have no idea where they are going and started wandering through the forest). Lunch time came, whistle blown and three students are missing. After determining who was missing I initiated a search and rescue for them.

Off we go searching the fields, forest and trails, and then, of course, they saunter in as if their actions meant nothing. Yes. It. was. a. super. challenging. day. And it was only lunch time. We still had an afternoon of programming, so we walked them. And walked them, and walked them. Fed the chickadees and walked them. Played a game, and walked them.

Although I was not there, it was reported after they returned from their afternoon hike that a few kids caught the wee chickadee birds and were running around with them in hand – they wanted a picture!

2:00pm couldn’t have come sooner.

Not an hour later I get an email from the teacher:

en route back to school the bus passed a few police officers on bicycles … the few ‘idiots’ from today decided to yell out the bus window ‘Eff the POLICE!’

Needless to say, the bus was pulled over by POLICE MEN ON BIKES and every single student on that bus was unloaded into the street. A few have been given warnings, and several students have now been suspended from school.

This was the good class that came today, we will have a visit from the ‘worst’ class in the school next week.  Time for a gin and tonic.

This though, is WHY our youth need to get outdoors. This is why our youth need to understand that there is a world beyond what they know, that there are places that are calm, safe and enjoyable. They need to understand that if you catch a bird, it can harm it – you are endangering its life. But most importantly, they need to know that there are people who truly care for them. I know from the concern and serious tone I expressed, that those students who were missing were my greatest concern. Our staff cared for their safety.

As a society, we need to get our youth back and engaged in nature. We need to preserve these places, if anything, for its ability to heal and its ability to provide hope. To teach them about how fragile life is, and how important they are to the world. So many of our youth are too far removed from nature that they do not know what quiet sounds like, they do not know what a park or garden looks like, and they have never had the pleasure of being in a forest. As an outdoor educator and teacher, this is my job. However challenging it may be, I know that it is my responsibility to inspire our youth to look beyond their world and present them with a forest of opportunities.

But please stay with the group and don’t wander off.

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