At the tender age of 8, McKenzie Smith* has undergone more disruptive home environments than most of us experience during our journey from ‘childhood’ to ‘adulthood.’ Her family’s struggles have brought them to their current status enrolled as clients in a local, non-profit welfare organization. This organization works to assist homeless and challenged families regain their feet after a period of rocky life occurrences, especially families with young children suffering from such instability. Most of the families enrolled in the program are single parenting one or more children, and many of the kids positioned here have been in transitory living conditions for years before reaching this safe-home.
You see, McKenzie is my neighbor, as are many of these family clients, living in a large, house-like apartment building on the street corner near my home. The kids walk to school around the block alongside my own children, as a weekly elementary school volunteer I see them in the classroom, and I see them outside playing many evenings throughout spring, summer, and fall. I didn’t know any of them very well when I first moved here two years ago, which was just 2 months before I started work as a Project Coordinator with FSPW.
At work, I was surprised to hear about the cooperative opportunity with this organization that the Program Manager of our wilderness advocacy group had been fortunate to come across and develop. He explained to me that my new project for the summer was leading hikes with children enrolled in this local program… in other words, my neighbors. Quite frankly, it was easy to be a bit skeptical. Since I have had the chance to observe them rather closely (really I have not much choice), it is clear their parents are preoccupied and burdened with life tasks, as the kids are outside a lot, and in many instances alone. They are loud, a lot of the time. They squabble. Their exasperated parents come, yelling at them out of a place of mis-handled concern, and I can only imagine how difficult the tasks facing these families must be, how hard it must be to focus when you can’t even find work. The kids sometimes find things to do in the chain-link fence demarcation that is their backyard, but are often left to bide time in the front yard, and traipse out in the street when they are unattended to.
Above all the commotion their living circumstances may have caused them, in observing them it was instantly striking to me how readily these kids bonded with each other. They are definitely a crew. Out there on the street corner, they are quite the unnamed gang of kids. And a little wild, a little rough. Something reminiscent of ‘Little Rascals meets Lord of the Flies….’
Would these kids really give two-hoots about being driven out to the wilderness to be stuck with some strangers in the woods? Or even want to? Would they be able to mind simple rules for behavior and stay interested for a whole day?
Well, it turns out, they did!
These kids were absolute natural phenomena out-of-doors. When we got them on the trail, they were full of energy, they were curious, they were clumsy, and they were just simply great kids happy to be out together doing something different. They liked the flowers they saw, the little water seeps running through the trail, BUGS, large cobbles to hop on top, sticks that resembled walking canes….
Every two weeks, when it was the day of the FSPW Kids’ Community Hike, I never knew which kids, or how many kids, would show up. And every two weeks, without fail, I would be greeted at the rendezvous by a big huge van buckled full of ‘em. Many kids came out on all trips. Others joined some but not all. But smiling, always smiling, were the participants who showed up on those mornings, ready to explore wherever we would take them.
We traveled throughout locations in the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, from the ancient Ross Creek grove of cedars, to the mighty Lightning Creek watershed, to the historic Star Peak Trail #999. The kids did everything they could get away with: ford crisp cool streams, balance over log bridges, hideout in gigantic tree cavities, research elusive amphibians, free-climb large cobbles, face their fears creeping through narrow tree-trunk tunnels, create contests skipping stones, dissect a decaying stump, find honest appreciation for the shade of a pine tree, and discover more about themselves…that they are capable of climbing mountains!
The kids were not bullies, not rude or sarcastic, not disrespectful. They were curious, light-hearted, and explosive! They brought heavy packs with them, its true, but by the end of the afternoon they carried what they could and shed the things they no longer needed, with attentive adult role models helping them along the way. The children enjoyed the special time spent playing and hiking together with kids they knew, kids who knew them. Certain shared moments will likely stick with them throughout their lives, because for these kids the opportunity to simply get out and play in the woods does not come every day. And in case these memories alone aren’t proof enough, I have a 2’x3’ scroll of paper saved that I found on my doorstep one morning with their signatures and smiley-faces on it, all telling me they were grateful to have gone hiking in the summer.
I’ve felt for a long time that you never really know someone until you take a hike in the woods with them, because out there, in vast forests and alongside rivers, our society’s ‘playing fields’ are leveled; the equalities we share becomes almost palpable. We are all that we are, right there in that moment, with our feet on the same dirt path, under the same cloudy sky, the surface of our skin feeling the same breezes, and the same horizon before our eyes. We are united in our place and time, and in our humanness. Last summer, these children shed all labels I, and others in society, had placed on them. They were children of this earth, they had a home, and they all belonged. What I didn’t expect: they knew it too. Even if as an instinctual ‘sense,’ this knowledge resonated in them. The months spent hiking together was for these kids, and in reflection for myself as well, a real summer jubilee.
At the end of last summer, I bought one of those outdoor, stand-up basketball hoops for my two sons at a 2ndhand sale. Nowadays the kids from across the corner come out and play ball with us on evenings when the weather is nice. I still see them in the elementary school where I volunteer each week. And sometimes we cross paths at the neighborhood marketplace.
But now when we meet, it’s just a little bit different. I see things in our passing-by that I didn’t notice before. I see that, in those shy little waves, I provide a community connection for them as a part of a larger group of people that lives here, a community they are a part of. I see them feel confirmed and safe, nodding their heads when I interrupt their games to discuss acceptable behavior rules, because they remember I like playing with them. I even see them divert their eyes if they weren’t behaving well, because they feel accountable now knowing someone who cares is watching.
McKenzie asks me when we are going hiking again. When these families complete their program, I hope I continue to see the kids from the ‘big house’ around the schoolyard and in the classrooms, maybe at the parks or playgrounds in the summertime. And I hope these every-day encounters will remind them of their inhabitance within our greater earth-community, similar to all humans as it is all nature, a community which they were born of, inherit, and will one day retire to, with all this Earth does give them along the way: clean water, fresh flowers and fruits, unique minerals, interesting creatures, and maybe most importantly of all, each other.