As a new member of the Orange County Hiking Club, I'm used to climbing mountains. So a hike advertised for a recent Saturday, inviting members to walk with at-risk kids from a local children's advocacy agency, caught my eye.
The event, Kids in Need of Nature, was a walk in Crystal Cove State Park to introduce them to nature. I thought, "Now that's a different kind of challenge from scaling a 10,000-foot peak."
Curious to see how troubled kids might react to such a setting, I signed up. Would they be bored and have attitudes? Be shy and withdrawn? Or would they be fascinated with creatures and plants that you only see miles away from city streets and homes, which they most likely never get a chance to do?
About 30 of us showed up to walk the rocky beach of Crystal Cove State Park. About eight kids roughly between the ages of 10 and 15 came along, each with a volunteer from the community agency, the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Orange County Inc., in Santa Ana.
Once we began investigating the tide pools on the beach, the kids who seemed indifferent in the parking lot, changed. All attitudes were gone as they intently watched, pointed and got exciting by the tiny — and some large — hermit crabs running back and forth under the kelp and the rocks.
I watched as K. — I'm using her first initial for confidentiality — ran along the water's edge and scooped up sea water to run it through her short, dark hair. When a hiker with the group yelled that she found a lobster shell, K. took off, shrieking like an 8-year-old. She didn't seem to be 17, her real age.
"The lowering of her stress level is what I've seen the most," said her CASA volunteer of four years, Lois Faist of San Clemente. "[These events] just make her week."
High stress is undoubtedly a major factor in the lives of kids in CASA's system. They have suffered the most serious neglect and abuse in their home life and, as a result, are in foster care. Most of them have been in the foster care system for at least six months, according to the agency website, by the time juvenile court judges have appointed a CASA volunteer to monitor and mentor a child, and advocate for a permanent, stable home.
A boy with a warm smile, E., used the event to learn how to interact with people. Saturday was his second Kids in Need of Nature activity. He returned because he made a friend in OC Club member Marko Peers of Fountain Valley.
"I was scared of people before," said E., meaning prior to going on activities with his CASA volunteer Minzi Jones of Laguna Niguel. But he was also so desperate for attention that he would do "wrong things" to get people to talk to him, he said, like paying them.
"Now I realize there are actually nice people in the world," said E. "I'm not even afraid of animals."
Jones said E.'s natural ability to attract people with his polite manners and eye contact has emerged since she first met him. Plus, his ability to clearly describe his feelings at the moment is encouraging her to do the same, she said.
CASA had told her volunteering would help her also.
"I've only been with him 90 days, and it's already totally true," she said.
E. is not alone in his need for social contact. Neglect is the predominant reason children are assigned CASA advocates, according to the agency's 2009 annual report. Other reasons include abandonment and abuse.
In 2009, the agency paired more than 800 kids with volunteers, and about 150 are always waiting for volunteers.
Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, who has climbed Mt. Everest, has also seen firsthand the benefits of connecting at-risk kids with nature. The club has been hiking with children from the local Boys & Girls Club for eight years.
The CHC takes the mostly at-risk kids on several long hikes up mountains while simultaneously teaching them survival skills, such as making rope, fire and fishing nets.
The kids evolve from being often rude and uncooperative in the beginning to serious outdoors-lovers who are engaged, helpful, communicative and able to meet the goals they set, said Erskine-Hellrigel, the group's executive director and president.
"Nature has a way of opening their eyes — even the most hardened child," she said. "It's an amazing thing."
On that Saturday, I noticed that all the CASA volunteers were women. Peers said he noticed something similar at the first Kids in Need of Nature event he went on. So he decided to return and now plans to attend as regularly as possible to try and be a good male role model so they can learn there are options in life.
I told him E. said it was their conversation that made him want to come back, and helped him become more confident around people.
"Wow," Peers said. "That just made my day."
CAROL LAWRENCE is a journalist who lives in Huntington Beach.