A Great Volunteer Opportunity: Lead Nature Hikes with Inner City Kids

It's 11:30 a.m. near the supposed center of Los Angeles and students from Huntington Park's San Antonio Elementary School are on a field trip experiencing something new. In this city, the literal center is not downtown or a highway, it's Franklin Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, which is considered the country's largest urban national park by the National Park Service, one of the government entities that manages the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area.

Tens of thousands of students from in and around the Los Angeles region visit Franklin Canyon each year. 15,000 of them—mostly at the elementary level—come courtesy of the non profit Children's Nature Institute.

"It's something that's really amazing for the kids because they never ever get out here because they don't have things like this near where they live," explained Melanie Bowerman, a Nature Walk Leader and Environmental Educator with CNI. "Sometimes it's the first time that any of these kids have come to a place like this, have walked on the dirt or have seen the animals."

While Bowerman's walk is the highlight of a student's CNI experience--hey, you get to leave school to visit the mountains-- it's only one-third of their outreach program for inner city kids from families living below the poverty line. First, the Wonder Mobile, a traveling classroom with live animals, visits the school with an educator to go over habitat, camouflage and other elements of wildlife. Then comes the nature walk, a two-hour hike in places like Franklin Canyon or Malibu Lagoon that reenforces the teachings from the Wonder Mobile, but this times with hands on experience.

Lastly, but most importantly, staff make a return to the school bringing the experience full circle with a nature hunt to find wildlife on their school yards. "This brings a greater awareness of nature in their own neighborhoods, it brings the connection," explained Allison Fuller, Director Of Community Outreach. (In the fall, they do an Urban Nature Week, which adds a fourth component--building community gardens at some of the schools).

Later this week on Thursday morning, CNI will host one of their monthly volunteer training sessions. Its 9 a.m. weekday time makes it hard for most working people to attend, but there's good reason for its timing--they need volunteers with untraditional schedules to match up with school day activities. "The most challenging thing about getting volunteers is that our volunteer needs are during the week when most people have full time jobs," says Fuller. Although there are other volunteering opportunities on the weekends like family walks, without weekday/daytime volunteers to lead hikes, they have to turn away schools.

"We're looking for people who want to work with kids," says Bowerman. "They don't have to have any background in it, but have an interest in kids, an interest in nature and an interest in helping these kids get outside because they wouldn't normally be able to."

This week's training, which is the first step to becoming a nature walk leader, will go from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Franklin Canyon Park. You can register online here.