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Connecting kids to nature

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Photo by Tamie Meck Delta County School District fourth graders receive a geology lesson at Lost Lake Slough from U.S. Forest Service geologist Liane Matson during a field trip last fall. Opportunities for Delta County and Olathe students and their famili

In a recent survey of Delta County and Olathe area students ages 4-18, out of almost 30 outdoor activities, archery was identified as being the one they would most like to try.

The more than 3,700 students, along with 235 adults who participated in the survey, also identified a lack of time, of access to equipment and money as the biggest obstacles between them and trying new outdoor activities. Almost 70 percent of adults and 55 percent of youth identified a lack of equipment as the No. 1 barrier.

An organization called The Nature Connection is working to take down those barriers and increase opportunities to get kids enjoying more outdoor activities, both through school and with their families. The program is supported by the Western Colorado Community Foundation/Delta County School District Foundation. Last October the program was awarded one of 14 Great Outdoors Colorado Inspire Initiative planning grants to begin identifying needs and refining plans. The initiative was established by GOCO to address the growing disconnect between youth and the outdoors. In the first half of the 18-month grant cycle, The Nature Connection established a website (www.thenatureconnection.net), completed a community survey and created a logo.

The program is receiving incredible grassroots support from local communities, said program manager Anita Evans. She and husband Richard Hypio, both retired teachers from the Delta County School District, have spent years getting kids outdoors. Even before applying for the grant, the district gifted the former Montessori School building near Hotchkiss High School to their efforts. The building "is a hub of environmental education," said Evans.

The Nature Connection's goal is to inspire the communities it serves to "connect to nature by promoting healthy lifestyles through educational fun and energized outdoor experiences." They are working in cooperation from numerous public and private partners to make that happen, with a long-range goal of becoming self-sustaining.

The kids love getting outside, said Evans. And there are endless recreational opportunities in this area.

Evans and Hypio are lifelong outdoor enthusiasts and worked in outdoor-related fields before going into teaching. As a result, they brought their love for outdoor play to their teaching careers, said Evans. Each year they take students cross country skiing, and go on school field trips whenever they can. In getting kids to learn about the out of doors, "Application-base is where it's at," she said.

In 2005, they established "Skis for Kids." They had pitched the cross country ski program to the Grand Mesa Nordic Council as a way to make the sport accessible and affordable to all kids. The Nordic Council agreed to support the program, so long as they ran it. They quickly raised $7,000 and purchased the first 30 sets of skis, poles and boots.

The program has continued to grow over the years and now serves kids in Montrose, Delta, Ouray, Mesa and Garfield counties. Since the Nordic Council has no physical address or a place to store equipment, it had been stored in their garage in recent years, said Evans. As the program outgrew their garage, and earlier this year, Skis for Kids was transferred to The Nature Connection.

In March, the program was awarded a $25,000 U.S. Forest Service More Kids in the Woods grant, allowing them to purchase more equipment. Last winter, about 1,700 kids participated in the program. Evans and Hypio went on about half of those trips.

The organization is working with numerous public and private entities to build an equipment library where kids, families and groups can check out equipment at an affordable price. That will help address the equipment and money barriers, said Evans. "If you make the time, we'll provide the equipment."

When surveyed about what equipment kids need most, the top three items were bikes (46.4 percent), river rafts, kayaks and canoes (43.4 percent), and tents (43.3 percent). TNC is partnering with Paonia bicycle repairman Scott Shishim to obtain about 300 bikes located in Durango and needing repairs.

River trips were listed as the field trip most kids would like to participate in most often, and they are partnering with River Restoration Adventures For Tomorrow (RRAFT), a Gunnison-based non-profit dedicated to river conservation, to offer river trips with a conservation component, and with Montrose Kayak and Surf to get kayaks.

The program is now moving into the second half of the GOCO planning grant cycle and into the actual planning stage. Because programs must be based on survey results, each community will create its own plan, customized to the survey results, said Evans.

For more than a year the TNC board and partner representatives have met the first Tuesday of the month to share ideas. The more than 100 regular participants include teacher liaisons from each of the schools, representatives from partner organizations including the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, Delta County Economic Development, each of the communities, the Western Slope Conservation Center and Delta County.

In the coming weeks they plan to hold community meetings in each of the communities to gather ideas and begin developing and refining plans. There are already a lot of great ideas, said Evans. For example, Cedaredge is planning a book walk along Surface Creek and to possibly expand the new climbing wall at Cedaredge Middle School.

School field trips are a big part of the program, and every trip includes a curriculum component. Many trips are already scheduled for grades 3-8 for this school year, and the program is growing. In September Garnet Mesa fifth graders will take paddle boats and duckies out on Crawford Reservoir, and all of the county's fourth graders will take a day trip to Lost Lake as part of the federal "Every Kid in a Park" initiative.

Of the top three field trips students would most like to participate in more often, 62 percent chose river trips, 47.2 percent said trips to the Gunnison Gorge, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre Plateau or West Elk Mountain Range; 29.9 percent chose area lakes and reservoirs; and 25.4 percent chose Dominguez or Escalante canyons. Farm tours and trips to Paonia River Park, Fort Uncompahgre, and Solar Energy International also received significant votes.

GOCO's Inspire Initiative is a five-year strategy. Evans is preparing to submit an implementation grant application of between $1 million and $5 million in lottery funds in October. Grants will be announced in 2017.

In the meantime, the organization is looking at creating an archery range at its headquarters. Other activities identified in the survey won't be so easy to provide, including ice skating. That might require building an ice rink. That's one of the dreams the organization has for the future, said Hypio.

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North Fork
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Children, School, The Nature Connection
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