Saturday, February 7, 2009

Wilderness Gardens Preserve - Volunteering with Inner City Outings

Volunteered on my first trip with Inner City Outings today at Wilderness Gardens Preserve just outside of Temecula on the 76. I arrived a little early and met with all the other volunteers, Bill, Shannon, Sheena, Jeremy, Mike and Carrie, all of us first-timers except Bill. We briefly traded names and said our first hellos, then two vans full of kids ranging from 1st grade to Middle School drove into the parking lot along with Jim, our trip leader, and our little party was begun.

It was awkward beginnings, you could feel that minor shyness and tension between us and the kids, there a lot of silent smiling. But right at the start of the trail there was a little creek running stronger than usual because of the rains and the kids got their first jump into adventure when Bill ferried them over it in his SUV. It was a good way to stir up some communal excitement and blow off the static web that was keeping everyone to themselves. The whole group stood together now on the other side of the creek. Jim laid down some basic groundrules, then we played a quick name game to help break the ice and set off.

Tromping along the trail the kids mostly talked among themselves, but us volunteers began making our first attempts to talk with them, pointing out everything we could to try pique their interest –growths of lichen, different types of scat, dung beetles, Indian grinding stones, holes in tree branches made by beetle borers, poison oak, pincher bugs and ladybugs –and slowly we all started finding things in common.

We stopped at a pond and found coots and mallards floating among the cattails. Jim is an entomologist and he pointed out some water skimmers and a praying mantis’ egg case. Things were starting to go a lot smoother between the volunteers and the kids, and we began using each other’s first names.

Halfway through the hike was what Ivan, the youngest kid in the group, had been waiting all day for –it started to rain. He jumped up and down in excitement because he could finally put on his rain gear, inside his oversized poncho he looked like a tiny grinning gremlin. His happiness was contagious to everyone, and to me it would’ve been enough if the rest of the trip was a disaster so long as Ivan got his rain. It was that genuine childhood joy that comes from the simplest thing, that same kind of thing so many people lose in their adulthoods of complications and extravagances.

We had lunch at a little wet grove, the half of us on a big fallen log and the rest under some dripping trees. By now the volunteers and the kids had a good connection going and we were all sharing the goodies out of our lunches. After we ate we played a game where we got our hands all tangled up and then had to untangle ourselves like twister in reverse, and my group ended up making an impossible knot that made it impossible to get free without us letting go or using a chainsaw.

At the end of the hike I ended up talking to a group of middle schoolers about horror movies instead of nature, and I remembered how good it felt the few times growing up when someone much older than me would have a simple conversation with me and treat me like nothing more or less than an equal. I hoped that these kids would get that same sort of feeling out of our simple casual talking.

Coming back to the creek where we had started, a completely different dynamic had taken hold of the group and we were all much closer than we had been just a couple hours before. It was amazing how great an effect such a little bit of time had on two groups of people who had never met before. Nature is a gorgeous facilitator of human bonding.

Everyone took their socks and shoes off and the kids were allowed to cross the creek by themselves this time. I imagined myself at that age and I would have felt it like some great death-defying expedition, the fording of some wild and mighty river. Some of the smaller kids took piggy back rides from volunteers to the other side, but one little girl named Ashley made excuses to keep crossing and recrossing the water. It was an example of those times when the smallest kid in the group is the one hungriest for adventure. Ashley made me smile with pride and wonder again when she scooped up a giant Jerusalem cricket that Bill had found –without a moment’s hesitation or a trace of fear. I ended up giving her 50 cents on a dare to put the cricket in an older girl’s hair.

Our hike over, we said goodbye to the kids, then to each other, and then went home to get dry and warm and reflect upon the magic we had all experienced. I think Bill put it best when he said "Sometimes before I come out on these things I’m doubtful whether or not I’m going to have fun or if I should even come… and afterwards I’m always SO GLAD I DID COME!"