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I spent the weekend taking a bunch of inner city kids from DC camping. It was undeniably my last most beautiful thing, absolutely worth the hours I've spent tracking signups, permission forms, and camping gear, the last few weeks. We drove out to an Outdoor Ed center near Harpers Ferry, WV; set up tents in a field; did a low ropes challenge course; grilled corn, hotdogs, hamburgers and S'mores; had a talent show with comedy, R&B, and gospel; did a Night Hike: kept mostly dry during a 3am lightning storm and downpour; built a fire in the morning, did another hike, and drove home tired and happy.

What was your last most beautiful thing?

I've been doing trips with this neighbourhood for ten years now, have watched kids grow, age out, and become parents. We do a camping trip every year, which is always a massive logistical challenge. Last year we got lost on the way to the campground, my car caught fire, we started setting up camp at sunset, and had kids fighting and yelling very rude things very loudly until about 2am in a crowded campground. The rangers were sympathetic, but on the brink of throwing us out, and in hindsight, that would have been preferable.

So that this year we had almost nothing but awesome nature experiences was almost miraculous. I kept waiting for the hammer to drop, but even shivering and drenched as the lightning flashed while hammering in rainfly stakes for 3 tents with a rock, I was grateful about how well things were going. I was glad to be where I was.

For all that these outings are supposed to be nature-oriented, we spend so much of our time & energy on kid & trip management, buying large amounts of ingredients for PB&J and ham&cheese sandwiches, processing waivers and keeping hikes moving, defusing conflicts and redirecting challenging behavior, deciphering ebonics and setting and maintaining boundaries, that on many trips, we just get snatched moments of nature experiences - if the kids can stop for 2 minutes to watch a dragonfly, admire its wings and multifaceted eyes, or celebrate climbing a mountain peak, or see a deer or bald eagle, I'm grateful.

I believe in Serendipity, and no longer expect to see the positive consequences of our monthly trips. These kids live inside a challenging reality, one that I'm still learning to understand. They're up against forces that I wouldn't last long in, and I respect their spirit and strength, and even when I'm calling them out, scolding them hard for something, all that I feel is  protectiveness. I want to give them some time in a world where they don't have to be hard, don't have to protect their insecurities by insulting or attacking others. I want to give them chances to face fears and beat them, chances to stand up for what they care about, what they believe in, and know that we've got their back.

We do a "Respect Talk", at the beginning of each trip, meeting in their low-income housing complex, in Southeast DC. They live in Anacostia, on the "other" side of the Anacostia River. When DC was the murder capital of the US, this would have been Ground Zero. Most of the deaths occurred far away from Georgetown, Takoma Park, the White House and the Mall, and so on. It was mostly black on black violence, and still is. White, financially stable, and educated people (I know that description is disturbing) knew to stay out of the danger areas, and the people dying and going to jail were these childrens' relatives and their friends and neighbours, not mine.

"What's our main rule?" I ask at the beginning of each trip, and kids call out, "No fighting! No cussing! No littering!", and I wait till one says "Respect!". "Yes," I say, "All those rules are important, but our one big rule is Respect! We respect each other, we respect the place where we are, we respect nature, and we respect the leaders. We give respect, and we expect respect. If you have a problem with someone, you come and talk to a grownup. If you have a problem with a grownup, you come and talk to me.".

Our mission is to provide a safe and entertaining experience in nature, but everytime I give the respect talk, I know it's not enough. I'm basically asking these kids to snitch, and snitching is not culturally acceptable. You're not supposed to talk to the police, you're not supposed to talk to the authorities. If someone is messing with you, you best stand up for yourself and mess with them back, because otherwise you weak and they gon keep messing with you.

So it's on us to read the kid dynamics, and step in and stop conflicts before they get violent. It's challenging. We're working with kids who live within a block of each other, but they might only meet on our trips. Some parents keep their kids inside but to go to school, and go on our trips; some kids are enemies when they come out with us; some kids become enemies on our trips. Recognizing and diverting conflicts before they become violent is a challenging and subtle art. These kids have very few models for conflict resolution, besides insults and violence.

And yet they're all sweet and brave and unsure of themselves and hopeful and strong. They deserve better, and I wish we could give them more. More support, more trips, more positive reinforcement, more hope. This is where my faith in Serendipity kicks in. But I do stand up as I can, and I call them out when I see them picking on each other, or messing with each other.

Which is why this weekend was such a beautiful moment. I've been working to make this program better for a decade, and the last physical fight I had to break up was Dec 2009. This summer's trips have been almost shockingly pleasant. We've been delegating responsibility to the older kids, and having them set example for the younger kids. We've hit a plateau where the kids, for all they might complain about hiking and bugs and dirt, are clearly enjoying themselves, and watching out for each other, and trusting and listening to us. It's still a fight, but a much easier one.

On this trip, we found deer tracks, and held hands as we helped each other across rocks and logs, following a stream. We had kids cooperating to set up the tents, and cook the meals, and clean up. We had nature moments with rocks, streams, trees, dirt, storms, stars, sun, mushrooms, ants, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, spiders, wasps, salamanders, turtles, vultures, deer, crows, and it was a privilege to share them with children who've grown up in the city, and rarely get the chance to explore in these ways.

So you, what was your last most beautiful moment?

Originally posted to erratic on Sun Sep 12, 2010 at 09:25 PM PDT.

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