By Angelou C. Ezeilo, founder and CEO of the Atlanta-based Greening Youth Foundation
High school students from inner city neighborhoods all over Atlanta headed to Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, with sleeping bags and pillows in tow to experience a night out in nature at an urban camp out.
The camp out was part of the celebration of National Public Lands Day, the nation’s largest, single-day volunteer effort for public lands. The event is hosted on the fourth Saturday in September by the National Environmental Education Foundation and sponsored by Toyota along with seven federal land management agencies and hundreds of state and local partners.
To provide these inner city students with a traditional camping experience – just as if they were out at Yellowstone or Yosemite – Greening Youth Foundation teamed up with the National Park Service. Many young people don’t have opportunities to visit places like the Grand Canyon or Rocky Mountain National Park and most have never been camping. The event was designed to connect them to nature right in their own city.
At the camp out, the teens got to experience bonfires, S’mores, games and live entertainment as well as a night of sleeping outside. More than a few participants never knew the city could be so quiet. The campers also learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil right icons.
On Saturday morning, they participated in a National Public Lands Day community service project in his honor. Through weeding, spreading mulch and picking up trash around the historic site, these students learned to take care of the cultural and recreational benefits that our public lands provide for us.
Research has shown that spending time outside on public lands can have a positive impact on our children’s health – both mentally and physically. Young people who have access to parks, trails and other outdoor areas are more active and are less likely to be overweight. Being outside in nature can build children’s self-esteem and confidence and reduce their stress and anxiety. Children feel better overall when they spend time outdoors.
Our young campers were not the only ones pitching in to take care of public lands on that September day. Volunteers from all over our state joined thousands more from coast to coast to enjoy and take care of the outdoor places they love. People worked to improve the Kolb Farm Loop Trail at Kennesaw Mountain and planted trees at Tribble Mill Park in Gwinnett County. They cleaned up around Carters Lake and Blue Ridge Lake and picked up trash around Wolf Creek in Vogel State Park. In total, more than 40 NPLD events took place across Georgia.
Each year across the country NPLD provides an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with public lands of every shape and size, from national parks and mountain trails to urban bike paths and playgrounds. More than 200,000 people join NPLD volunteer efforts each year on public lands from coast to coast contributing more than $18 million in in-kind service.
In addition to outdoors and nature, our public lands highlight the many different historical, cultural and spiritual stories that have shaped this country. At the event in Atlanta, you could see how important it was for young people to experience a place like the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site to learn about America’s complex history.
National Public Lands Day occupies a unique niche in its ability to bring so many diverse people together to take care of the parks and other green spaces that they use every day. It’s never fails to be a meaningful experience to take care of the public lands that give so much to us.
It’s especially gratifying to connect children to the outdoors for the very first time. Their faces light up in a magical moment and you know that this might be the beginning of a rewarding, life-long connection with environmental stewardship and the public lands that are all around them.
Note to readers: Angelou C. Ezeilo is the founder and CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation in Atlanta, whose mission is to work with diverse, under served and under represented children, youth and young adults in an effort to develop and nurture enthusiastic and responsible environmental stewards. Greening Youth Foundation provides programs and services throughout the country and in Ghana, West Africa.