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Educating Young Visitors at the Hike Inn


by Richard Judy, AERS Board President

Nothing is more important to the Len Foote Hike Inn’s mission than tossing kids into the deep end of the outdoor education learning experience.  Over the years, thousands of children of all ages have visited the Hike Inn.  I think it is safe to say that virtually all of them had an unforgettable experience, the kind that challenges their thinking about the world and how they want to commit themselves to the future.  Unchaining developing minds from video games, mindless television and exercise-deficient lifestyles can be nothing but positive.  2013 has been our best year ever for linking young people to environmental learning.

This success came chiefly from a long-established joint venture with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club on their project to educate young people from inner-city Atlanta and from North Georgia mountain communities.  Accompanied by teachers, school administrators and experienced GATC members, these students had a true outdoor experience during their visit to the Hike Inn.  It is no stretch to say that the trip was the most intense exposure to true wilderness that most of them had ever seen.  Many of them spoke of how they were inspired to learn more about natural history and perhaps to apply the resulting knowledge to their future education and careers. This year, the GATC led a record 119 students!

Another group returning to the Hike Inn was led by Chris Skinner, the son of AERS board member Steve Skinner.  Chris directs a faith-based group designed to use spiritual tools to help young men improve their lives and futures.  He requires the participants to earn their way on their Hike Inn trip by displaying positive behavior.  Those of us who hiked in with a dozen of Chris’s boys were impressed by their gentlemanly behavior and their openness to learning. Joining them at dinner and talking about their college and career aspirations was a genuine privilege.

The Hike Inn was also lucky to host the Atlanta-based group, Soccer in the Streets, which teaches kids skills for life “one goal at a time”.  The group was very resourceful, making a soccer field of any flat land they could find and taking the food waste goal very seriously.  These young people spent part of their visit giving back by helping with landscape maintenance, though this work quickly turned into a search for buried treasure!  These fun, curious, and outgoing individuals appear to have promising futures ahead!

An organization known as Interfaith Power and Light (an initiative dedicated to highlighting environmental elements of religious faith) co-sponsored Hispanic students to hike up to the Inn in July.  Part of their goal was to educate young people about how to sustain our environment. They had a successful trip and the participants showed a true love for learning.

Working with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, we have participated in teacher training for their A Trail to Every Classroom initiative. Using the outdoors as a literal and figurative learning laboratory, teachers animate education in a way that could never happen in a conventional classroom.  When kids who have had little exposure to the woods suddenly find themselves hiking five miles back into a mountain wilderness, many of them display a comical combination of fear and breathless enthusiasm.  They speak with terror about seeing a snake or bear, all the while wishing desperately to actually see one of these creatures.  Of course, the stress and sweat of laboring up a mountain trail elicits groans and complaints from time to time, but when triumphant kids reach the lobby of the Hike Inn, the enthusiasm is palpable.  You would think they had just won a gold medal in the Olympic 10,000-meter race!
Let us know if you have ideas about how we can broaden our efforts to bring nature to kids.  In years to come, thousands of students will visit the Hike Inn and be inspired by a near-mystical opportunity to break away from the “real world” and immerse themselves into an even better real world.

For more information on the Len Foote Hike Inn, see their website.