Imagine living just a mile from the James River, but never visiting any of the access points that line its banks – or even knowing that the river exists. Many of the children from Richmond’s East End neighborhoods – an area with a poverty rate three times higher than the state average – have rarely experienced the natural beauty just beyond the fences of their asphalt block.
While many families might take it for granted to pop over to Pony Pasture or Belle Isle to soak in the sights of the waterway that has become the heart of RVA, not everyone experiences this ease in accessing nature. Sadly, young people are becoming less likely to engage in the outdoors. National studies report that children are spending half as much time outside today as they did twenty years ago, with little or no unstructured outdoor play. Locally, surveys reveal lack of transportation as one of the main barriers inhibiting lower-income families from visiting the James.
Blue Sky Fund believes the outdoors should be a part of every child’s life and works to provide transformative experiences in nature to urban youth across Richmond. Time spent in nature is proven to support the positive development of at-risk children by cultivating enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills, along with increases in self-esteem, problem-solving, and motivation to learn.
“Nature makes me feel so much more relaxed, and I become the best version of myself,” says Hannah, a 16-year-old who completed Blue Sky Fund’s Outdoor Leadership Institute last year and returned this summer to be a guide-in-training. “You don’t realize how much you need this program until you go through it. It’s made me more sure of who I am and what I want in life, and that’s something only experience can give you.”
In the last eleven years, the organization has grown from sponsoring about thirty-five kids for summer camp to providing experiential outdoor education to more than 2,000 students of all ages throughout the school year. David Kunnen, executive director of Blue Sky Fund, says the goals of Blue Sky Fund’s programs are comprehensive. “We want kids to experience improved academic performance, but we also want to widen their appreciation for their environment.”
Starting in early education with the Explorers program, Blue Sky Fund partners with Richmond City Public Schools (RPS) to deliver free monthly outdoor education experiences to students in grades two through five enrolled at eight elementary schools. These outdoor experiences are designed to bring Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) science objectives to life in nature’s classroom. Children spend three hours rotating through stations using learning styles that encourage use of the senses. Students visit a different natural site in the region each month – seven or eight total locations throughout the school year – and are exposed to places they might continue to explore with their families. “These repeated environmental education experiences are proven to improve both students’ academic performance and perception of their natural environment,” says Kunnen. “And it’s fun!”
Beyond in-school experiences, Blue Sky Fund also offers after-school programming with weekly Outdoor Adventure Clubs (OACs) for middle school students. “Think back to your middle school days and how tough that season of life can be,” says Kunnen. “You’re riddled with self-doubt, increasing academic and social pressures, and the inevitable changes your body starts to go through.” Kunnen says being in the outdoors provides a supportive and confidence-building environment for middle schoolers to explore new activities and discover
the outside world while also learning about themselves. For a few weeks at a time, students are immersed in a new outdoor activity – such as hiking, biking, rock climbing, or kayaking – that challenges them to overcome fear and adversity while developing resiliency, a key factor in conquering adverse childhood events (ACE). Each activity series culminates with an extended outdoor expedition that allows students to practice newfound skills in the environment and feel a sense of accomplishment in mastering an activity.
Blue Sky Fund’s Outdoor Leadership Institute (Hannah’s program) guides high school students in becoming inclusive and service-oriented leaders in their community. Students are nominated by a member of the community to participate in this yearlong program, which brings together a diverse group of students from high schools spanning the city to undergo team-building bootcamp before executing a 5-day excursion to Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia. After completing the climb, students reconvene once a month throughout the school year to complete a service project in the community, such as planting trees, picking up trash, or recycling oyster shells for the Chesapeake Bay.
“The future of our community depends on our youth, and children deserve to develop into young adults in a welcoming and supportive setting – which is not always the case depending on social and economic factors,” says Kunnen. “Blue Sky Fund is working to change that.”
Dominion Energy Hike for Kids and Support Blue Sky Fund!
Virginia War Memorial
Saturday, October 26, 9 a.m.
Hike along the James River Park System to support the urban youth served by Blue Sky Fund. Enjoy the challenge of 3-mile (family-friendly!), 8-mile, or 14-mile loops around Belle Isle and other trails along the James River, each starting and ending at the Virginia War Memorial. Enjoy unforgettable river views and the crisp autumn air while hiking for a good cause. Celebrate the end of your hike with beer, food, and family festivities.
To register for the event or learn more about how to support Blue Sky Fund, visit Dominion Energy Hike for Kids.