By Lisa Fernandez
De'Andre Gross had never slept outside in a tent. But this spring, the 11-year-old Burckhalter Elementary School student went camping with his afterschool program at Mount Diablo State Park. And not only did he get to sleep outdoors, but he's also still talking about being able to climb over the roof of a ramshackle shed, "go up and down steep hills," start a fire by turning wood bark into powder, and listen to coyotes howl at night. Even the tiniest of things amazed him. "My teacher found a dead mosquito and let us hold it," he said.
It's these outdoor lessons, big and small, that make it all worth it for the leaders of Oakland-based Bay Area Wilderness Training. Since 1999, this organization—one of about 70 projects under the Earth Island Institute nonprofit—annually trains about 300 teachers to lead about 8,500 young people each year, ages 7 to 26, from the North Bay to the East Bay down to Santa Cruz on outdoor hiking, camping, and wilderness backpacking trips. If you add it all up—and Executive Director Scott Wolland has—that's 18,133 camp nights last year under the stars for kids like De'Andre.
Being out under the stars means kids will most likely be looking up at twinkling lights in the night sky and not the glow of their iPhones. "It's a chance for kids to figure out who they are and connect with their friends away from their devices," Wolland said.
For some, camping outside might not seem like a big deal. But for many families, especially in the Bay Area, setting up a tent in Yosemite National Park might be a mainstay holiday vacation. However, a lack of knowledge about the outdoors, and the cost of owning or renting tents, stoves, hiking shoes, warm sleeping bags, and the rest of the gear that goes with it, can often be a challenge to other, less-affluent families.
"We don't want there to be any barriers to accessing the outdoors," Wolland said from his office, set in a nondescript warehouse at 1050 E. Eighth St. "We've got all the equipment that we loan to trained teachers and youth workers for free through our hands-on training. And we give the teachers the confidence to lead and the skills to do it."
Bay Area Wilderness Training now has four "gear libraries"—one in Oakland; two in San Francisco, including at the Presidio; and one in Milpitas—where teachers can borrow any type of camping equipment imaginable for free, once they complete the low-cost training.
Students from Claremont Middle School in Oakland recently borrowed hiking shoes, sleeping bags, fleece jackets, tarps, etc., for a camping trip to Anthony Chabot Regional Park. At the end of the trip, the parents and volunteers helped put away the equipment on BAWT's neatly organized shelves, and checked all the tents to make sure they're ready to go for the next trip. BAWT has more than 200 "partners," from domestic violence survivors who recently took a healing hike to afterschool programs to gang-prevention task forces in San Jose and church and other faith groups.
Teachers attend a variety of trainings at BAWT. They can range from a $195, five-day wilderness training session in the backcountry to $25 to learn how to lead a day hike. Once the teacher is trained, he or she can access the gear library for free. Outdoor and sports gear companies like Eureka, Colombia, Osprey, REI, and Under Armour donate boxes of free goodies, and the funding is provided by individuals along with big name foundations, including the Hewlett Foundation, the Morgan Family Foundation, Youth Outside, and the Youth Access to Nature Fund. The program runs on about $800,000 a year, about half of which comes from foundation money, and 16 percent of which is donated goods.
The funding makes it possible for the students to use the camping equipment for free. Seventy-four percent of the students who go on BAWT trips are from low-income neighborhoods and 85 percent are youth of color. (The national average of participation outdoors for youth of color is 20 percent, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.)
Zotunde Morton remembers being one of those lucky kids to camp along the Russian River and in the San Bruno mountains with his extended family. "My mom had seven siblings, and we'd do huge group camping," said the 39-year-old founder of the Ujimaa Foundation, the afterschool program at Burckhalter Elementary. "I remember snake hunting for garters with pillowcases. We'd catch them and let them go."
He wanted the students at his East Oakland school to experience what he did as a kid. "Some inner-city kids are almost afraid out of the outdoors," Morton said. "Culturally, this is not something many African Americans do."
Morton first connected with BAWT because he wanted to use the free gear. But he realized how much he didn't know about the outdoors until he received the training. "I used to be really stressed taking kids out," he said. "Then, I learned how to cook meals for a large group and how to be better organized. It really stepped my game up."
Now, Morton said he is very relaxed taking 20 kids at a time to the outdoors—he estimates he's taken students on 10 trips over the last five years. The best part? Not having to say no. "There are so many rules in the classroom," he said. "When they're outside, they ask me, 'Can I run up the hill?' And I say, 'Of course you can!'" He added that as an instructor, he plans the trip minute by minute, but often drops those lessons if the kids are simply having fun doing nothing. "Really, just letting them pick up sticks and throw acorns is sometimes all they want to do."
Those simple acts can bring about deep change, Morton has found. "The kids with nice clothes, or the bullies, might be the most afraid in nature," he said. "And the shy kids in the classroom might be leaders outside. I've seen these social roles switch. You really see humanity outdoors. Camping breeds cooperation."
Marketing the idea of camping to kids is usually pretty easy. It's the parents who are a tougher sell, some of whom are fearful of their children being in the woods without real shelter or protection. "They're worried about bears and wildlife that could eat their babies," said Kelly Carlisle, 38, executive director of Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm Project.
Carlisle didn't grow up camping herself. "Camping was not for us," she said. And it's not just animals that scared her. "There's a lot of fear about being in the middle of nowhere and not knowing who's gonna roll up on you. Black families out camping fear getting harassed by local racists."
But some time ago, her neighbors whom she said she "trusts very much," asked her and her daughter, then 4, to go camping in Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore. The two had fun, and she relied on all their gear. She realized she wanted to bring that outdoor experience to the students she guides to farm organically at her program in East Oakland.
On her first trip, her colleague, who was BAWT-trained, couldn't show up, leaving Carlisle in charge. She didn't realize you couldn't leave food scraps on the ground, and in the middle of the night, raccoons stormed her campground. She has since received the official training, and is now quite comfortable leading the outdoor trips. And the parents who were fearful? They are now volunteering to come on the trips to help her.
"The kids are so excited to sleep under the stars," Carlisle. "There's that little thrill, that little voice that says, 'We might die out here.' But then it all turns out all right. It's such a completely different experience for most of these kids. They really learn that these are our parks. They learn that there is a lot of value of taking care of them."
For more information on leading a trip or becoming a Bay Area Wilderness Training teacher, visit www.BAWT.org.
BAWT enables teachers to connect with kids through outdoor activities. Photo courtesy Bay Area Wilderness Training.