Spotlight: Sierra ICO and Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth Organizations

The NYC Sierra Club group has sparked a collaboration between two unique nonprofit organizations seeking to engage students with the great outdoors. Over the past two years, Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) group and the Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth (SGHY) organization have brought many NYC-area students on day and overnight trips into the wilderness, teaching them about wildlife and ecology along the way.

Sierra ICO is a nationwide community outreach program for children and adolescents who face the challenges of growing up in New York’s inner city areas. Each chapter recruits and trains volunteer outdoor trip group leaders – NYC’s chapter is led by the dedicated and dynamic Katie George! Leaders then reach out to local schools or youth organizations to recruit young people of all ages for nature trips. Learn more about the chapter, or about volunteer opportunities, here.

SGHY is named for a long time Sierra Club Member and ardent environmentalist Sophie Gerson. Sophie taught physical education and health in the NYC public school system for 36 years, and served for over seven years as a Member, Vice-President, and President of Manhattan’s Community School Board 2. As a teacher she took students on winter ice skating trips; as a School Board Member she successfully fought to save the East River Boathouse, a unique environmental education center. SGHY continues her vision by bringing enrichment programs in sports, dance, outdoor nature, and hands-on science to middle school students in low income neighborhoods. Learn more about SGHY here.

Several years ago, the organizations decided to collaborate, noting shared goals to expose youths to the joys of the outdoors. Upon viewing a Sierra ICO presentation made to the NYC Sierra Group Executive Committee, ExCom member Alan Gerson, Sophie’s son, introduced the Sierra ICO to SGHY, and the alliance has worked seamlessly ever since. SGHY has introduced the Sierra ICO program to two public middle schools to date, one in the Southeast Bronx and one in Manhattan’s Lower East Side Chinatown neighborhood. Both schools serve students living below poverty levels in tenements, public housing, and homeless shelters. When asked how many had hiked in the woods before, five out of one group of 30 eighth-graders – about to embark on an Appalachian Trail hike – raised their hands. As one parent volunteer stated in appreciation, these kids may never have a similar outdoor experience without access to the program.

The Sierra ICO/SGHY program provides four trips over the course of the school year to each of those two schools. Trips are seasonal: a fall foliage hike and apple- or pumpkin-picking trip; a winter trail forging and ice-skating or sleigh-riding trip; a spring awakening hike; and a summer Delaware River rafting trip. Each excursion incorporates lessons in ecological science and follows NYC Department of Education guidelines and requirements.

Crucially, schools serve as the central partner in this three-way collaboration. Sierra ICO identifies trip possibilities, organizes the trips, provides volunteers who lead the trips, and covers a share of trip expenses. Schools choose from the trip possibilities, select students to attend, obtain permission slips, and provide teachers, who have ultimate responsibility for the students, to accompany ICO leaders on trips. SGHY facilitates this interaction, provides bus transportation, lunch, and snacks, covers the cost of teachers’ time, and, along with Sierra ICO, funds admission fees and other trip expenses, including proper outdoor attire.

The photographs below are from the most recent, fall foliage apple-picking trip. This trip set a Sierra ICO record of 43 students on one trip. We will continue to post photographs featuring the exuberant students attending these educational wilderness trips: these kids’ smiles say it all!

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