Point Bonita YMCA Delivers Meaningful Experiences in the Outdoors Every Child Deserves
At the northernmost entrance to San Francisco Bay sits Point Bonita, a coastal community adjacent to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; a stunning regional treasure jutting out into the Pacific. And yet, according to a survey taken by Point Bonita YMCA of its participants, a full 17 percent of children in the community had never seen the ocean and 36 percent had never camped out overnight.
“Public spaces are for everyone,” says Point Bonita YMCA Associate Executive Director Sean Dries. The organization offers outdoor education, conferences and retreats, youth and family camp, and community wellness programs in Sausalito, California.
Dries believes a powerful way to give children the opportunity to experience nature is to offer outdoor education as part of a school’s curriculum. “To have a kid come to Point Bonita and feel sand in their toes for the first time is really powerful,” he says.
Mike Orvedahl teaches sixth grade at Ethel Baker Elementary in the heart of Sacramento California. He would have made outdoor education possible much earlier had he known how straight-forward the process would be and what a significant impact it would have on his students. The idea occurred to him during his 20th year of teaching when he started making use of Donors Choose and realized outdoor education for young students is an opportunity many people were happy to support.
As Mike began working with Point Bonita YMCA to select the best-fit outdoor education program for his school, the YMCA also helped him eliminate financial barriers. Five years later, taking it step by step, the program is still going strong. “Point Bonita has found a way every year to help when we’re struggling,” says Orvedahl.
This includes expanding the program to run over multiple days instead of spending the night, to make it more responsive and culturally accessible for students whose parents are uncomfortable with the overnight stay. When this change dropped the program cost, but increased the cost of transportation, Point Bonita covered the buses for one of the days.
The benefits of working together to design and fund the program are profound. “It’s transformational,” says Orvedahl.
Combining a hands-on science curriculum with a recreational camp experience, kids interact with nature and each other in new ways. Schools can choose a variety of options, from a few days to Monday through Friday, overnight or not, more focus on academics or more on team building. Options include geology, night hikes, a pond study, personal reflection time, skits, team challenges, talent shows, and more.
For the students, in addition to the rich programming, Point Bonita opens them to new opportunities and ways of being. “Many of the kids have never been outside the boundaries of their neighborhood,” says Orvedahl. “The families are working really hard and this is where they are at.”
Kids who have been struggling with trauma, or who have been withdrawn or depressed, find a new reality. “They’re smiling, hopping and joyous,” says Orvedahl. “And students with behavior problems in the classroom are as calm as can be, immersed in their surroundings, eyes wide open.”
Making Everyone Feel Welcome
Point Bonita YMCA places a priority on hiring staff members who increasingly reflect the diversity of the students. Seeing naturalists who look like them gives kids additional role models and new ideas for potential career choices in the future. Staff also undergo trauma-informed and de-escalation training to help them to be as culturally competent as possible.
“We’re working to intentionally create a space where all are welcome and feel at home,” says Dries.
It’s working. In addition to asking the kids about first-time experiences when they return, the YMCA also measures other changes. For example, for 95 percent of participants, the experience caused them to feel pride in their ethnic and cultural background. As many as 96 percent say they understand how their actions impact the environment. All of these outcomes point to the fact that connecting kids to the natural world and helping them see their place in it should be a right rather than just a nice-to-have. Point Bonita YMCA continues to be at-the-ready to help teachers like Orvedahl make sure these pivotal experiences happen.
Point Bonita YMCA | Point Bonita YMCA Delivers Meaningful Experiences in the Outdoors Every Child Deserves