CITY KIDS WILDERNESS PROJECT, PART 1:
KIDS IN THE WILD
A’Lexus knows she’s not a patient person.
“I’m very blunt,” she said. “I don’t like working with people.”
People, however, are often a necessary evil. Fortunately for A’Lexus, there is City Kids Wilderness Project, a DC-based nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of young people though goal setting, environmental education and long-term engagement. Over the course of a multi-year program, participants learn outdoor skills, which teach them important life skills, including goal-setting, social justice, teamwork and overcoming challenges.
“They teach you how to work together,” said A’Lexus, 15, as she ate a sandwich during a lunch break from a City Kids canoe trip along the Anacostia River. “I’m learning to be nicer when I say things.”
Beginning at age 11, City Kids participants take part in activities that include hiking, horseback riding and white water rafting. As the program progresses, the children take on more challenging goals that, in turn, imbue them with more forward-looking skills.
“We’re throwing them into all sorts of crazy adventures,” said executive director Eloise Russo. “There’s this high level of confidence that they can do it.”
CITY KIDS WILDERNESS PROJECT, PART 2:
GETTING BACK ON THE HORSE
Students at City Kids Wilderness Project attend summer camp in Jackson, Wyoming, go kayaking in South Carolina, take bike trips along the C&O Canal, and participate in day trips and service activities all around Washington, DC and the surrounding areas.
Many of the students who are involved, Eloise said, come from high poverty neighborhoods with a lot of instability.
“It’s an opportunity for them to try things that are really hard and to be able to overcome them. If you don’t get it the first time, or the second time, it’s okay.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to get back on the proverbial horse – or the actual one – after a fall.
“I’ll tell you one thing I didn’t like,” said 9th grader Isaiah, “falling off a horse.”
“Did you get back on?” inquired City Kids intern, Claire.
“No!” He replied emphatically.
Isaiah did, however, note that he’d enjoyed white water rafting. Soon, he’ll embark on a white water kayaking adventure, maneuvering a boat alone rather than as part of group. The rafting, Eloise explained, helps teach the kids to be part of a team. Kayaking helps them learn to trust themselves.
“One of the first things older youth say is that because of City Kids, there is no challenge they can’t overcome,” she said. “Building resiliency is one of our key goals. There’s a connection between (City Kids activities) and their every day life in DC.”
CITY KIDS WILDERNESS PROJECT, PART 3:
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
As City Kids students progress through the program, they become more focused on leadership and job training. A’Lexus, who dreams of visiting Paris and hopes to become a child psychologist, chef or lawyer, says she wants to be a JET, a mentor-in-training for younger City Kids students.
A'Lexus is eager to begin working on her resume. Claire, a junior public health major at Johns Hopkins University, offers to help.
“I like anything with the mission of helping kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity,” said Claire, noting that lower-income students often lack the opportunities to participate in the same after-school enrichment programs as their middle-class peers.
A Seattle native, she was excited to find an internship opportunity that combined her interests in public health, helping youth and the outdoors.
“I was like, ‘Oh! Sweet!’” she recalled.
Barvona, another City Kids intern, calls the experience of working with City Kids Wilderness Project“exhilarating.”
“Their message and their goal is very strong,” she said.
The extensive framework of the City Kids program allows for positive youth development and the broadening of horizons, Eloise said. As each year presents new challenges, City Kids works with the students to develop skills that are becoming more pertinent to their everyday lives and futures.
The older students, for example, focus more on building job skills and being peer leaders. There is a social justice and service-learning element to City Kids projects. Students do workshops on conflict resolution and get wilderness first aid training.
In Jackson, they explore career interest. Business owners have welcomed the kids to visit and learn.
“The community there is incredibly supportive of City Kids,” Eloise said.
Antoine, a 9th grader, said City Kids has taught him not only new skills, such as swimming, diving and camping, but about himself as well. Nature, he said, makes him feel peaceful.
“I learned that I need to be more aware of my surroundings, be more aware of nature, and get out of the house more.”