By Laurence Gibson, El Paso Group chair
The El Paso Group has a not-so-secret history of working to introduce youngsters to the great outdoors. The background here is that El Paso is a city where many fight an ongoing battle to eat and sleep indoors in a warm house with a soft warm bed. People do love parks here, mostly city parks, with their playgrounds, green grass, water fountains, and restrooms. Our great El Paso Zoo is also a popular destination. So why would anyone who could afford such creature comforts venture outside of the city, outside of El Paso?
Enter ICO, originally Inner-City Outings, recently renamed Inspiring Connections Outdoors, a sort of stand-alone arm of the National Sierra Club with its own administration, money and volunteer force.
The El Paso Group founded its ICO back in the ’70s, and over 40 years later, it is the only ICO in the Rio Grande Chapter. Early Group leaders were not always complimentary about the ICO. Nevertheless, a group of selfless volunteers, many of them school teachers, realized that many students were uncomfortable, even afraid of the outdoors, with its desert terrain, forests, wild animals and lack of sanitation facilities. They also realized that those youngsters would grow up to be city leaders and environmental caretakers. It was some 40 years ago that Jefferson High School English teacher Jeanne French began taking her students on hikes, camping with them, showing them the values of clean air, clean water, and noise-free environments. Her lessons in nature gave so many a leg up onto the world stage, some to MIT (El Paso is a favorite recruiting ground}, one all the way to Everest.
Following Jeanne’s death, present leader Richard Rheder picked up the reins he holds today. With its warehouse of canoes, mountain bikes, tents, backpacks and leaders, ICO partners with Girl Scout troops, Boy Scouts, school groups, virtually any nonprofit needing expertise in the outdoors. Oldtime Sierrans like Ted Mertig and Rick Lane working with Scout leader Gloria Santellano and her husband are now “making a difference” in young people’s lives through ICO. Their most recent outing was the annual Christmas Tree cutting in the Lincoln National Forest near Cloudcroft, where kids bring home their very own tree to the family.
New kid on the block in the El Paso Group is its Sierra Student Coalition at Americas High School, led by Sierran Neysa Hardin. This is the Rio Grande Chapter’s second SSC group, coming years after the St. John’s College group folded. Hardin has forged partnerships with Chamizal National Memorial, Hueco Tanks State Park, Franklin Mountains State Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Rangers at these parks instruct students in many areas while they build trails, learn park biology, geology, history and breathe clean air.
The El Paso Group is excited to see this happening and furnishes as much support as possible to Executive Committee member Hardin. Last May, the group helped fund buses for a trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings deep in the heart of the Gila National Forest.
Congratulations and a big thank-you to all our youth leaders. Let’s keep up the good work in 2018!
Feature image by Neysa Hardin.