When 13-year-old Alyssa came to Echo Grove camp, she had never caught a frog. She had never nailed a bullseye or seen a fish sparkle and jump on the end of her line. She had rarely ever even gotten dirty. Most of all, she had never, ever dreamed doing these things would be so much fun! The opportunity for Alyssa—and many other children across America—to have such experiences was a gift. Thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations teamed up with the Salvation Army to bring kids wildlife encounters just like these.
There was a time when most kids had lots of contact with nature. They caught frogs and fish and made mud pies. Hunting and fishing were a natural part of childhood. And it was good for everyone. People who spend time outdoors are more fit, healthier and even happier! In fact, being outdoors just might prevent depression —a recently discovered organism in the soil does just that. All you need to do is take a walk in the woods or play in the dirt to get some of it into your system. There’s even some evidence that playing outside helps kids deal with ADD symptoms.
So, if the outdoors is so great, why aren’t more kids outdoors these days? With computers, televisions and video games providing an omnipresent distraction, kids are progressively more hooked on electronics and less on nature. Not to worry. Some very motivated partners in giving have swooped down from their tree stands and come to the rescue.
The Salvation Army Outdoors (TSA Outdoors) Initiative and its partners gift children 4 through 18 years old with hands-on outdoor skills that include hunting, archery, fishing, boating, hiking and anything outdoors you can think of. The endeavor welcomes children that normally might never step outside city limits. Others have been to camps, but never learned much about the abundance of outdoor opportunities within such close reach. Some of the kids are are part of the foster-care system or have parents that are incarcerated. All are welcome.
“I had no idea there was so much out here!” Alyssa commented as she savored a tasty day lily in her wild edibles class.
In school, kids seem often to learn more about the rainforest than they do about their local environment, but TSA Outdoors is making strides toward change. Nine-year-old Caleb once thought all fish were basically the same. At the end of camp, he sounded like a veteran angler. He shared what he learned during an afternoon of instruction on the fishing dock.
“My favorite thing about fishing was all of the different species we caught and learned about. I personally landed a sunfish, a bluegill, a pumpkinseed, a yellow perch, and a largemouth bass in just one day!”
An animal ecology class dispels misconceptions and fears some of the children harbor. Camper Maggie, age 16, said, “At first I hated reptiles, but after being able to have hands-on I’m much less scared now. I even held a snake for the first time in my life!”
In truth, because nature is so unfamiliar to some kids, not everyone is thrilled to dive right in. To encourage the reluctant ones, the TSA Outdoors program provides incentives to coax their adventuresome spirits to emerge. One of the incentives has resulted in a fierce competition among campers over, of all things, dog tags and beads.
Major Monty Wandling, an avid sportsman and lifetime member of the Salvation Army, recalled a program he had attended as a child with a Native American theme called Black Arrow. Every camp had a council ring and they all had necklaces with a leather pouch that looked like an arrowhead. The necklaces also had an ermine tail and beads were added according to how many years the campers had participated and what their achievements were.
“My idea was that we could do that with a dog tag and put colored beads on the chain,” said Wandling. The TSA Outdoors campers can now earn a rainbow of beads for acquiring skills from wetlands ecology and wild edibles to target shooting and tracking. “Now there are children earning beads in many other states. It has became an incentive for a child that might not normally take a class like orienteering to try something new.”
The idea for TSA Outdoors started small, in Royal Oak, Mich., with the goal to make use of materials, facilities and programs that were already available. To jump-start the enthusiasm, they used an existing program to train all SA leaders in archery skills.
Jill Johnson, the head of character development at the Royal Oak Corps, had noticed that many of the badges or emblems children were earning at camps were for things they could do indoors in the winter, such as laundry skills. A lifelong outdoorswoman, she collaborated with educators to create rewards for more adventurous outdoor endeavors.
“Outdoor activities build character. It seemed such a waste to have a country camp facility like ours and not use it! This is where we could do the most good,” Johnson stated. They began to include outdoors as part of the character building program.
Although the TSA Outdoors initiative began in Michigan, it has caught on like infectious laughter. Since its inception in 2006, it has become a movement of epic proportions. In July 2011, children from 11 states came together in Minnesota for a jamboree to participate in TSA Outdoors activities and training.
Participating camps in different locations have their own individual programs, but the formula they follow is essentially the same. First, Salvation Army Instructors at various locations are trained by industry professionals in programs such as Project Wild, Project Learning Tree and Aquatic Wild. They then use what they learn from these tried and true, well-researched educational programs to provide fascinating natural adventures for the campers.
What makes it so successful is the fantastic organizational structure of the Salvation Army. Indeed, TSA outreach supported 2.6 million troop participants and campers nationwide in 2009. This creates immense opportunities for partnerships to help give these children the outdoor experience.
Initially some of the partners materialized as much through planning as coincidence. Bob Easterbrook, Jr., and Ralph Cagle came knocking on the Salvation Army’s door in search of a location to host a hunters’ safety camp for the State of Michigan. They found the ideal facility in a large, picturesque Salvation Army camp named Echo Grove. Once they began talking to some of the Salvation Army officers, the two were asked to serve on the advisory board of the TSA Outdoors initiative. The lifelong outdoorsmen, best friends, NRA members and leaders in their Safari Club chapter were only too happy to help.
“It was very exciting to think about sharing our passion for the outdoor experience with so many children,” stated Cagle. They dove right in. When local chapters of the Safari Club noticed that the camp needed a shooting facility, they gave them one and invited the Salvation Army to send their youth to the program. Then, the hunters’ safety graduates applied their newly acquired skills. A hunt opportunity sponsored by Pheasants Forever gave them a chance to put some organic, free-range pheasant meat on the table.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) was one of the original collaborators as well. Their highly effective relationship with TSA Outdoors became a model for other states. Wyoming, Minnesota and Missouri, among others, followed suit. Their natural resources departments are working with TSA Outdoors to provide facilitators and qualified trainers to the Salvation Army so they can, in turn, relay the joy of the outdoor experience to urban children.
“It’s a great partnership for everyone, because they (TSA Outdoors) have an outreach with urban children that we want to connect with. We have the programs, if you have the kids!” said Michigan DNR Education Services Manager, Kevin Frailey. “And, every child deserves the chance to experience nature,” added Frailey.
Partnerships have continued to evolve on an even larger scale. The local SC chapters are now working with the Safari Foundation to send their instructors to the American Wilderness Leadership School. Sue Hankner, Direction of Education and Humanitarian Services for the Safari Club International Foundation, knows it’s all about kids, and they’re putting every effort in to contribute. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Joe Foss Institute, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Forestry Service, not to mention a lot of individual volunteers are also taking part in the big give. It’s a win-win for all.
For some campers TSA Outdoors is more than just getting acquainted with fish, amphibians, reptiles, archery or orienteering. Camper Ashlynn, age 15, explained that she also appreciated the opportunity to interact with mammals of her own species.
“The best thing about camp is being able to meet a bunch of new people who know a lot of really interesting things about nature!” she said.
Most people know the Salvation Army for its Christmas gift distribution and thrift shops. However, for many of the kids who have participated in the TSA Outdoors experience, it is the opportunity to embrace nature and get outdoors that is the greatest present of all.
When we clink our coin in the red bucket of a bell ringer dressed like Santa, we don’t usually think we’re nurturing nature. “Santa” does use that money to feed the poor and care for the needy. However, he and everyone who contributes, are giving back in more ways than most of us can imagine. In fact, a whole army of individuals have partnered with the man in the red suit to provide children with something that might have been lost forever to this generation—the classic experiences of a childhood spent outdoors.