Memorable? Absolutely. Life-changing? Possibly. Now that the pilot program has been such a success, Johnson’s goal is for 1,000 underserved kids to each have had a WOW! moment in nature by this coming January. To that end, Mary Gibbons—a Florida-certified naturalist who holds an M.A. in Sustainable Tourism—was hired to run this program and keep it exciting, safe, and sustainable. With her globetrotting background in scuba diving, backcountry hiking, bike touring, and other experiences (such as living and working in an off-the-grid ecovillage in rural Missouri), she’s the right person for this job. The easiest and fastest way to ramp up this program was to partner with organizations that already had relationships with the target population—at-risk kids in elementary, middle, or high school. When Johnson approached groups like Girls Inc., Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County, Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast, Visible Men Academy, Alta Vista Elementary, and the Laurel Civic Association, the response was an overwhelming “Yes!”
“I didn’t realize how much this meant to me until I got choked up talking about it at a recent art opening,” Johnson admits. “I grew up outdoors. I always had stitches in my feet and knees. I could tell the difference between the call of a robin and a blue jay. I knew the difference between red and black mangroves. Getting out into nature isn’t something many kids do these days.” And she’s finding out that what’s got her excited about Youth in Nature is exciting others in the community too. Alongside the scientific research backing it, we all know on some level that being out in nature can reduce stress levels, improve social skills, and ultimately be a more powerful learning environment than any traditional classroom tends to be. Plus, it’s fun. The pilot program ran two summers ago, and this past summer, they ran about 30 events. “Next summer will be packed,” promises Gibbons. Though this is a year-round program, it’s summer in particular when all the organizational partners are looking for things their kids can do. “This month alone,” Gibbons explains, “we’ll have 200 kids come through. But what we’re really excited about is our new fishing equipment. Once we get some training, we’ll take all groups out for both kayaking and fishing. We’re even going to do a fishing charter thanks to the generosity of a local fishing captain.”
Get ready to gather around the holiday table and enjoy the November issue of Sarasota Scene!