By Lesford Duncan, Sr. Director of Programs
Over the past year, the impacts of the pandemic and racial trauma and reckoning in our community have only increased the need for our work. More than ever, we’ve seen how our programs provide critical support for youth and families dealing with uncertainty, emotional and mental health struggles, school disruptions, and unemployment.
Our overarching goal is to provide tools and positive support systems that remove barriers preventing youth from reaching their full potential—pandemic or not. And so in 2021, Outdoor Outreach will continue to run programs that have meaningful impact for our youth, and are highly adaptable to the changing public health guidelines that keep our community safe. Some of these are:
Neighborhood Adventure Clubs
In order to reach youth in critical service areas in San Diego County, Outdoor Outreach will develop three community-based Adventure Clubs in 2021. Once public health guidelines permit, our open enrollment programs in City Heights, Southeast San Diego, and Cajon Valley/East County will hold bi-monthly outdoor activities, enabling us to provide a safe, positive resource for families even during school closures.
Our flagship Leadership Program, provides meaningful outdoor experiences, career and leadership development, mentorship, and civic engagement opportunities for youth, especially those from underrepresented and disenfranchised communities. In 2021, Outdoor Outreach will provide a summer Leadership Program cohort, and we hope to introduce an additional fall cohort that will reach youth in (or transitioning out of) the foster care system in partnership with San Pasqual Academy and Casey Family Programs.
Family Engagement Programs
Family has been one of the most critical supports for youth during this challenging past year, and our families have been looking for ways to bring their household together for fun—but safe—outdoor activities. In 2020, Outdoor Outreach piloted a family engagement pier and boat fishing program in partnership with Latino Outdoors and Barrio Logan College Institute, through funding by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Vamos a Pescar grant program. We connected 76 children and parents to positive bonding experiences through what was, for most, an activity that they hadn’t tried before! In 2021, we will offer at least 12 additional family engagement programs.
Behavioral Health-Focused Partner Programs
Based on youth surveyed at Outdoor Outreach, the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the sense of isolation and risk of mental and behavioral health issues for youth. In 2020, Outdoor Outreach partnered with the County of San Diego Behavioral Health Services, Palomar Family Counseling Service, San Diego Youth Services, and South Bay Community Services, to provide youth with outdoor activities that increase positive social interactions, improve self-confidence, and instill hope. In 2021, we will continue working with social service partners to integrate outdoor recreation as an innovative approach to resilience development in youth who have experienced, or are at-risk of, behavioral health conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to eating disorders, psychosis, and suicidality.
Outdoor Outreach works not only to provide programming that connects youth to the transformative power of the outdoors, but also to improve systems that make it difficult for youth to get there in the first place. Through our Outdoor Voices initiative, we provide platforms for youth to bring their voice to issues of environmental justice, outdoor access, and park development, to name a few. Our young leaders regularly speak with local, state, and federal lawmakers and effect real change in policies that make the outdoors more accessible and inclusive for all. We will continue this work in 2021 and for years to come.