Into the wild: Students in urban districts discover a whole new world with Outdoor Adventure Clubs

Nonprofit celebrates its 5,000th adventure
Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-23 12:00:18-04

CINCINNATI -- Getting urban teens out of the city and into the great outdoors can’t be easy. But retired Cincinnati Public Schools teacher Denny McFadden has done it more than 5,000 times in just five years.

Since launching as a nonprofit in 2011, McFadden’s Outdoor Adventure Clubs have made their way into 19 urban schools in cities throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The school-based clubs connect hundreds of inner-city youth with free, outdoor recreation and conservation activities each month.

Many of the students who participate in Outdoor Adventure Clubs have never spent much time enjoying the countryside or the outdoors beyond an urban setting. (Photo provided)

Collectively, the group just celebrated its 5,000th outdoor adventure during a kayaking trip in September. That’s no small feat considering the call of the wild for today’s youth has major competition from pretty much any destination with a good Wi-Fi connection.

“Our kids are simply not getting outside enough,” McFadden said. “Connecting with nature is an important part of not just their physical development, but also their social and emotional development as well.”

Researchers across the nation have been warning parents for years of the potential dangers associated with kids spending more time indoors on electronic devices and less time outdoors. And for good reason: Kids who routinely spend time outdoors lower their risk of obesity, heart disease and a variety of other health conditions, including anxiety and depression, McFadden said. They also perform better academically and get into less trouble at school.

Because of their lack of proximity and access to safe, outdoor recreation activities, McFadden said urban teens are even less likely than most to spend time outdoors exploring the region’s green spaces. In fact, during his time at Cincinnati Public Schools, the veteran educator said he encountered many students who had never been outside of the central core of the city.

As a teacher, McFadden coordinated a low-cost canoe trip every year. He said he witnessed first-hand the transformation that happens when these kids get the opportunity to participate in an outdoor adventure for the first time.

“We had kids who had never been on the water before go from being really anxious at first to successful, confident paddlers in the span of an afternoon,” he said. “You can see their confidence build.”

Seeing that transformation is what led McFadden to launch Outdoor Adventure Clubs of Greater Cincinnati and spend his retirement years ensuring other local kids have the same positive and engaging outdoor opportunities at no cost.

Since it began, the nonprofit has picked up steam with a variety of sponsors and a small army of volunteers. They share McFadden’s vision of making a difference in the lives of underserved youth with outdoor adventures that foster healthy physical, social and emotional development, and also promote good stewardship of the region’s green spaces.

Monthly trips include kayaking, hiking, biking and even skiing and ice skating adventures.

The program is invaluable for financially strapped schools that don’t have the funds to offer similar field trips to students, said Lisa Rizzo, who coordinates an Outdoor Adventure Club at Newport High School.

“These are opportunities many of our students wouldn’t be able to experience,” she said. “It’s a great way to expose them to these outdoor activities, and we’re also reaching kids who aren’t interested in typical school sports programs.”

The adventures go far beyond learning the featured activity, Rizzo said.

“They’re building teamwork and social skills and self-esteem,” she said. “Each adventure provides them with a challenge.”

Students often discover a lot about themselves and enjoy new physical, social and emotional experiences. (Photo provided)

For Woodward Career and Technical High School senior Omar McWhorter, the trips have been eye-opening. He has participated in Woodward’s Outdoor Adventure Club since his sophomore year and has found a passion for both camping and skiing.

“The club has given me opportunities to try new things,” he said. “I’m more knowledgeable about the environment, and it has introduced me to activities I can do on my own for the rest of my life.”

Jordan Burton, a recent Dayton High School graduate, had a similar experience during his three years in the club.

“The clubs get kids out into nature, but it’s more than that,” Burton said. “We took so many fun and interactive trips. You develop a new appreciation for the outdoors.”

Teens in Outdoor Adventure Clubs often discover a lot about themselves as well, McFadden said.

“By the end of each adventure, they’re amazed at what they have been able to do,” he said. “They can step back and say to themselves, ‘If I can accomplish this, what else can I accomplish?’”

For details about Outdoor Adventure Clubs, or to help support McFadden’s mission, click here.