On a Saturday in early fall 2012 environmental activist Christian Alvarado dedicated a few hours of his time in service to nature. He lead a group of students on a work project to clean up trash and remove graffiti along the banks of the Connecticut River. Helping to restore the esthetic beauty of Riverside Park near his home in Hartford, Connecticut this part-time student and aspiring filmmaker serves as a role model to empower a new generation of young people to protect the world in which they live.
Alvarado, 21, is a prime example of the direct influence that can be achieved through programs of youth engagement. Sponsored in part by several organizations throughout the outdoor industry, a handful of key philanthropic groups work not only to protect the environment but grow awareness among those young people who will inherit the legacy of our public lands. A volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings Program Alvarado works with local youth to build their skills as stewards of wilderness while flexing on his own talents as a natural leader.
“Every single trip I’m feeding off of the students and the participants as much they’re feeding off of my vibe and my leadership skills,” he said in an interview. “This program really helps me to become a better leader for my lifestyle, for business and for personal growth.”
Actively involved with Inner City Outings from a young age Alvarado has grown up to become a young adult with serious ambitions to make environmental conservation part his life both personally and as a profession. In addition to leading service projects with high school students, today he also plies his skills as a photographer and filmmaker to help spread the message of wilderness protection through the Natural Leaders Network, founded by Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv.
“I’m the social media manager for their Facebook and Twitter accounts,” Alvarado said. “And I do their photography and video work when I’m invited to events. I also write their blogs.”
Part of the Children & Nature Network the Natural Leaders Network establishes opportunities for young people to get involved in the conservation moment in a meaningful way. Whether by actively working to clean up sites in the wild negatively impacted by human behavior or connecting with their community leaders to lobby for political action, youth can play a vital role in reversing the trend Louv first identified in 2005 as nature deficit disorder.
“Children are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, and this disturbing trend will have a profound impact on the physical and mental health of future generations as well as the health of nature itself,” said Louv, in the C&NN blog. “The creation of the Natural Leaders Legacy Initiative is an important step in reversing nature-deficit disorder in our communities by preparing those most affected – our children – with the skills and resources to get more people engaged in the outdoors in nature.”
The Natural Leaders Legacy Initiative gives major donors a chance to support youth engagement with the financial resources necessary to reach a broad audience. Outdoor Retailers like REI and manufacturers such as the North Face recently funded the program with major gifts to help get more kids interested in nature.
“The REI Foundation is interested in exploring new and innovative ways of connecting young people with nature and the outdoors,” said foundation president Michael Collins in the same blog post. “Helping take the Natural Leaders Network across the country puts young leaders into local communities to engage youth and communities in this exciting effort.”
Similar programs supported by the Outdoor Foundation, the charitable arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, work to boost the participation of young people who will likely grow up to become avid users and consumers of outdoor products.
“It seems that companies large and small are realizing that outdoor recreation among young people is a business imperative,” said Outdoor Foundation executive director Christine Fanning. “It’s not just a charitable endeavor it is core to their bottom line.”
The Foundation’s flag ship program Outdoor Nation draws bright and talented young people from across the country to several different events on college campuses in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York City and Washington DC. At these gatherings or Summits as they’re called, attendees meet, exchange ideas and acquire skills to become more effective environmental activists. Participants between the ages of 18 and 28 are eligible to receive grants through the Explore Fund up to $2,500 to finance their ideas to get more youth and young adults outside. And outdoor companies can become directly involved in specific initiatives that speak to their core audience of consumers.
“For example we’ve worked with the Paddle Advisory Council to do a challenge grant around ideas that increase paddle sports participation,” Fanning said. “It really allows companies to brand and market a grant program that they can customize to meet their objectives. We really try to make the business case for our work around Outdoor Nation and so far its been pretty successful.”
Philanthropic contributions from organization outside of the Outdoor Industry are going to help grow youth participation as well. Fanning said major corporations like Johnson & Johnson or charitable groups like the Bechtel Foundation also offer their support to the Outdoor Foundation.
“For sure the Outdoor Industry remains our core support and our closest partners, but we’ve been fortunate to be able to leverage that support and match it with support from other sectors,” Fanning said. “Our belief in youth empowerment and the millennial generation as a paradigm shift in this country sets Outdoor Nation apart and makes it particularly attractive as this lets companies get to directly engage and interact with the most influential demographic of our time.”
As a member of this key demographic Christian Alvarado is encouraged by the support and leadership opportunities he receives from the Natural Leaders Network. An attendee of Outdoor Nation summits he works closely with his peers and younger students in the hopes that they might follow his example.
Unfortunately Alvarado is one of only two Sierra Club volunteers certified to lead training field trips in a community with 7 schools and hundreds of kids willing to participate.
“The only issue that we face and I’m sure that it’s an issue in other organizations is actually finding volunteers. My challenge right now is to find young people who can commit to becoming leaders,” he said. “I think there are people out there. I just think the marketing of it could better.”
Like environmental conservation itself, youth engagement requires the raising of awareness. With the help of social media Alvarado is slowly making headway. But community involvement is one of those rare problems that money alone cannot overcome. Though cash contributions are certainly critical to their very important work environmental activists agree very little change can be made unless individuals and institutions commit themselves actively to protecting the wild places they care about most.