In 1976, the Sierra Club established a nationwide Inner City Outings Program (called ICO for short) to provide safe and fun wilderness trips to those with limited access to the outdoors – especially youth. In 2014, the name changed to Inspiring Connections Outdoors.
Today, the Club has 55 ICO groups nationwide whose volunteer leaders conduct more than 800 outings for approximately 14,000 people each year. By helping these participants discover, enjoy and explore the beauty of natural places, ICO helps the Club build support for environmental protection in urban, suburban and rural communities across the country, supporting John Muir’s assertion that people who experience wilderness first hand are much more likely to preserve it for future generations.
Through ICO, people who would not otherwise be able to spend time in nature learn how to enjoy the outdoors safely and responsibly. From simple day hikes to weekend camping or longer backpacking trips, ICO offers a range of age-appropriate activities to help underrepresented communities explore, enjoy, and experience feeling connected with the natural places near their homes.
This program not only gets people active outdoors, it promotes interpersonal skills and self-esteem by involving participants in teamwork, teaching them how to be self-reliant outside an urban setting, and encouraging them to take an active role in protecting the environment. For many of our program participants, who often come from broken homes and conflict-ridden neighborhoods, the experiences that ICO provides are invaluable, not least being the time they spend with our volunteer leaders, who use these outings to help participants learn how to respect themselves, each other, adults, and nature. Every trip is different, but each is a vital opportunity for our participants to discover themselves in a new environment, learning about their own interests and abilities in the process.
Community Outreach and Volunteer Recruitment
To find participants for its outings, each ICO group partners with local organizations (e.g., social service agencies, community centers, church-affiliated youth groups, and schools) that serve populations with limited access to the outdoors. Often, these partnerships are brought about by ICO volunteers who already have a relationship with one of these community groups. In other cases, ICO groups have sought out established national organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America or the YMCA, to develop their participant base.
To recruit additional partners and volunteers, we rely on word of mouth and on publicity at local environmental events, community fairs, outdoor stores, colleges, and universities. We also use online volunteer match services, and our own Web site to promote opportunities for involvement with our program.
We also cultivate volunteers from within our base of participants and community partners. ICO participants who have grown up with our program are excellent volunteer prospects, as are agency personnel who have participated on our trips and shown interest in getting further involved. Engaging these young people and agency representatives in our work and helping them to become ICO leaders not only strengthens our groups at the local level, but helps us achieve our goal of diversifying ICO’s leadership pool as well.
Volunteers who want to become certified outing leaders undergo a criminal background check, DMV check (if driving), basic or wilderness-level first-aid instruction, and outdoor leadership training. They also are mentored by experienced ICO leaders, who accompany them on outings and decide when they are ready to lead trips on their own. In addition, each ICO group conducts annual or biannual leadership trainings based on standard training materials distributed by the national office that cover topics such as, group management, pre-trip planning, safety management, and conducting environmental education activities. Learning how to teach outdoor skills, such as setting up and taking down tents, cooking on camping stoves, and practicing camp hygiene, and how to impart knowledge about an area’s ecology are all part of the ICO experience. The Sierra Club also provides training events to help ICO’s group chairs further enhance their leadership skills.
Once an ICO group successfully establishes its relationship with an agency, it develops a schedule of outings based on the ages and abilities of the participating youth and on the number of available volunteers.
An average trip consists of two to four certified ICO leaders and eight to ten participants, but this can vary depending on the type of outing or the skill level of the participants. Whenever possible, ICO leaders try to maintain a small leader/participant ratio and to work consistently with the same people over time so they can build acceptance, trust, and mutual respect within their group, as well as develop new leaders.
ICO trips encompass a wide range of activities—backpacking, bicycling, canoeing, car-camping, cross-country skiing, kayaking, rafting, or sledding— and also include service trips that focus on environmental restoration. Outings usually begin as small trips, such as day hikes to nearby parks, beaches, or lakes. After leaders have had time to develop a rapport with participants, however, they try to conduct longer or more challenging outings, such as overnight camping trips, that allow participants to further build their confidence by testing the new skills they have acquired. When an ICO group works with a school, the teacher often coordinates the outing with the class curriculum, using the outing as an experiential teaching tool.
Below are a few examples of what goes on in ICO groups across the country:
Chicago ICO coordinates dayhikes and beach excursions to nearby forest preserves or state parks - Indiana Dunes and Starved Rock are favorites - with a variety of social service agencies including Valentine's Boys and Girls Club, Universidad Popular, and Camp of Dreams, and Prtizker College Prep High School. A highlight is Pritzer High School teens' involvement in service projects at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, whose consistent service work contributed to the site getting National Wildlife Refuge status. The group makes an overnight camping/service outing each summer to keep Hackmatack free of invasive plants and enjoy its splendor.
Tucson ICO conducts an array of outings in the nearby deserts and mountains of Tucson with a diverse group of partners: elementary and middle school students, refugee familes from the International Rescue Committee, and developmentally-disabled adults from the non-profit Life Lessons. The multi-generational day hikes ICO leads for Somali, Congalese, Bhutanese, and Iraqi refugee families helps ease the transition for these families into their new outdoor environment.
San Jose ICO has worked with youth from the Dan Lairon Elementary School for over ten years. Leaders regularly take the young people on hikes to explore the numerous regional and state parks surrounding San Jose. Special outings include trips to see the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Park or a kayaking adventure in Monterey Bay.