Imagine not having access or exposure to nature, being stuck in a city without the means to explore the outdoor world around you. That is the harsh reality for many Philadelphia’s children, whose circumstances prevent them from ever reaching the thousands of acres of wooded parks around the city, just a short bus ride away.
David Reuter recognized this problem in 2005, and started volunteering his time to help inner-city kids discover more of the natural world in and around Philadelphia. Though it first started as a simple volunteer effort, it soon became Urban Blazers, a nonprofit focused on using outdoor activities to empower Philadelphia's under-resourced youth community. Now led by Executive Director Eric Dolaway, the Urban Blazers gives more than 1,200 city kids the opportunity to explore the outdoors through camping, hiking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, skiing, and more.
Urban Blazers’ success over the past 10 years can be largely attributed to its enthusiastic volunteers who commit countless hours of their time to help young Philadelphians experience nature—sometimes for the first time. Each potential volunteer must submit an application with personal references and undergo a background check in order to ensure the children’s safety.
“Every trip, I discover this is someone's first hike or first time seeing a frog,” said volunteer Rachel Blustein. “This peaks a certain enthusiasm in me because there is nothing like sharing one of those bright-eyed moments with an Urban Blazer....in these moments I know these kids are getting more out of this program then I can even begin to imagine. We are creating the leaders of the future.”
The nonprofit runs two main programs to help empower youths. The first is the Living Classroom Program, which focuses on mentoring entire classroom groups, with a 1:4 mentor to student ratio. The program uses weekly classroom visits and monthly outdoor outings to teach students about the outdoors throughout a yearlong partnership. The second program is the Summer Experience Program, which acts like a summer camp, meeting with each group between two and 10 times. The program uses community team building and trust exercises combined with outdoor adventures to help introduce inner-city kids to completely new experiences each summer.
Each year, Urban Blazers leads their participant groups on a multitude of outdoor excursions, which are the foundation of their programs. One example is hiking on the Boxer's Trail and in Wissahickon Park—both places act as “home bases” for the program. Kids explore the trails, wade in creeks, learn which plants are edible and which are poisonous, and learn to identify different types of animals. Other excursions include skiing at Spring Mountain, and learning to rock climb at Go Vertical, a local climbing gym. Ultimately, the programs Urban Blazers offers are only valuable if the students enjoy them and gain something from them. And after 10 years, it seems the volunteers’ work is paying off. According to organizers, 95 percent of 1,000 Urban Blazers participants were exposed to a brand new experience in the program. Additionally, 95 percent of kids learned something new or positive about themselves during the program and 85 percent reported being more interested in fitness. Clearly, the program is producing positive results, and kids are having fun along the way.