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San Bernardino National Forest - Kids On Public Lands

Posted in Features on January 1, 2007
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Nearly six years ago, a group of volunteers in Southern California established a one-of-a-kind program designed to give inner-city children the opportunity to escape their confines for a day, climb in a Jeep, and experience nature firsthand. The fledgling program was called Kids on Public Lands, and it has proven to be a resounding success. "Although the San Bernardino National Forest is less than two hours from Anaheim, California, most of the kids who live in the inner-city have never been to a forest and even fewer of them have ever been four-wheeling," says Tracy Lenocker, the 2002 chairman of Kids on Public Lands. "This program brings together the local police department, inner-city kids, and four-wheelers for a one-day excursion into the forest. Everyone benefits from KOPL."

Off-road clubs and individual enthusiasts make up the nearly 100 volunteers who organize and participate in the annual KOPL event. The KOPL committee includes members of the local YMCA, who chaperone the children on event days, and officers from the Anaheim Police Department's Police Athletic League (PAL Program), who provide the transportation and insurance for the event. The department's public affairs officer also invites local news media on the trip. A representative from the San Bernardino National Forest attends the committee meeting to make sure resources are available from the Forest Service, including the visitor's center.

The kids range in age from 9 to 13 and are selected by the local YMCA. Originally, the YMCA just had a sign-up sheet, but after kids began returning home with stories of great experiences, the YMCA had too many kids who wanted to participate. Now the YMCA grants the trip as a reward. On Saturday morning of the event weekend, 50 boys and their YMCA activity counselors are picked up at local schools. The bus leaves the city limits and makes a two-hour trip to the Discovery Visitor Center in the San Bernardino National Forest, where the aroma of pine trees, fireplaces, and cool mountain air quickly takes over their senses.

The kids are guided through the Discovery Center by a Forest Service volunteer who explains the local ecosystem. The kids are then taken outside for a demonstration of motorcycle riding safety gear and firefighters' protective gear. In both cases, kids are given the opportunity to try on the gear and imagine themselves riding a motorcycle or fighting a forest fire. The last activity before lunch is gold panning. A volunteer shows the kids how to pan for gold, and each of them is given an opportunity to swirl water over sand that has been salted with fool's gold. The sparkling pyrite looks like gold, and the kids can take it home, if they can find it.

After lunch, each child is matched with a driver who escorts his or her assigned child to the 4x4 for a safety check. The same basic items checked during an off-road event are printed on a 3x5 card for the children to read aloud. As a child calls out items on the list, the driver shows the item to him for verification. After the safety check, the children are strapped into the front seats and given instructions on the use of CB radios. During the ride, kids are allowed to talk with their friends over the radio. The highlight of the trail ride is a narrow dirt road leading up to a fire lookout tower. The dirt road is not very exciting for experienced four-wheelers, but the facial expressions on a happy child who has never been off-roading or visited a forest is priceless.

A goodie bag of small gifts and a snack are given to each child for the bus trip home. Most of these gifts, as well as lunch items, are donated by various companies. As the kids head down the hill, volunteers kick-back and enjoy a BBQ dinner. For the volunteers who stay overnight, the Forest Service provides a group campground. It took a total of 72 volunteers for the 2002 KOPL event, plus volunteers from the Forest Service.

On Sunday morning, the whole program is repeated for a group of 50 inner-city girls. The only variation is that women drive the 4x4s on the trail ride, and most of them drive their own rigs. If you want more information about this program or would like to begin a Kids on Public Lands (KOPL) program in your area, visit one of these Web sites below.

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