BICO Takes City Kids from the Streets to the Trail
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by Marta Vogel |
By Marta VogelBefore that, you would not have caught me in the woods, says Juan Coles, a senior at Digital Harbor High School, a magnet public high school in Baltimore. I was a city boy. Sierra Club has changed my life.
By Marta Vogel—“Before that, you would not have caught me in the woods,” says Juan Coles, a senior at Digital Harbor High School, a magnet public high school in Baltimore. “I was a city boy. Sierra Club has changed my life.”
At a cross country meet a few years back, a fellow runner told Coles about BICO (Baltimore Inner City Outings). “You all should come along,” the teammate urged. “It’s fun, it’s free and the people are great.”
Coles swallowed the bait and liked the outdoors so much that when he graduates from high school next year, he will be a certified Sierra Club youth leader. He recently helped with the Oct 22-23 Pocomoke trip, with 20 students and eight leaders, planning the food, transportation, and figuring out where the nearest hospital was. Students hiked, biked and kayaked, and while they were hiking, Coles was fixing lunch.
What he enjoys about the outings, “the silence..the silence…you hear so much. When we’re camping, you hear the wildlife, the little rodents scurrying. You enjoy yourself. It’s like a mini-vacation.”
Does he have any trouble persuading other students to join?
“Nine out of ten times I will persuade someone to come,” the naturally charismatic student says. “Yes, you’re in a tent, there are no showers, but get over it; it’s just for the weekend.”
While the intent of Inner City Outings program is to get those young feet hitting the forest dirt instead of city asphalt, coordinating the monthly outings requires more than throwing a few sleeping bags and tents in the back of a van. “The challenges prior to the outing are the big ones,” says Nicole Veltre-Luton, who, for the past 11 years has co-chaired BICO with Bob Burchard. “Having enough certified leaders and volunteers.”
In fact, as of January, 2009, BICO was on the endangered list. No one ran for chairman and without a chair, the group could not meet ICO regulations. Veltre-Luton decided to co-chair with Burchard and notes, “I feel like I have a full time volunteer position sometimes.” Veltre-Luton notes that she has a strong group of dedicated volunteers. But keeping it all together is like a fiddler on the roof involving sponsoring agencies, trip leaders, and funding.
“It is hard to find individuals who really want to volunteer for the right reasons and are committed to doing so, not just so they can say they volunteer during a cocktail party conversation,” says Veltre-Luton, an environmental sciences teacher at Digital Harbor.
“Once one challenge is done, the next one pops up,” say Veltre-Luton, who has coordinated at least a day outing once a month for the past 11 years, plus four camping outings a year. “We lost one of our agencies. One teacher went to med school and the other transferred to another school. So we were down to one very strong agency, and one mostly strong, and a fledgling.”
BICO currently deals with four agencies, including Digital Harbor High School, College Gardens Community Center, Baltimore Talent Development HS, and Paul’s Place in Pigtown.
Bob Burchard set up the program in 1999 and is now so busy with PR and funding that he rarely has time to go on many outings himself. “So far we continue to be fortunate,” says Burchard, “We haven’t been hurt by the economy. We can make a strong case for funding. With no paid staff, we’re getting inner city kids into the great outdoors.” BICO operates on an annual budget of approximately $16,000. BICO depends on the kindness of a great many donors, including Allstate Auto Rentals, REI, CVS, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Beth Ruekberg, chair of the history department at Garrison Forest School, provides leadership training.
Veltre-Luton estimates that a weekend camping trip for 20 or so students costs about $1200, most of it going to the 15-person van rental. There’s also food, cabin (at Blackburn) or camping fee and gear. They’re now looking to get new tents to replace those they got some years ago from REI returns or tents REI was unable to sell. Gear is stored in a gear locker at Route 40 Storage, where BICO gets a discount.
Digital Harbor student Tiara Barnes has participated in BICO outings at least once a month, sometimes more, and has taught other students the “No Trace Left Behind” policy and why protecting the environment is important. “The volunteers and students work very well together,” she says. “It’s almost like we’re a family and every trip someone new joins us.”
“All of the students end up knowing a lot more about the environment after each outing,” says Veltre-Luton. “ It is exponential what impact an ICO can make on the environment through opening the eyes of a child.”
Juan Coles is hoping to attend Hampton University, along the banks of the Virginia Peninsula, to study environmental science.
For a city boy living in a Baltimore row house, it’s been quite a trip.
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