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Scrapbook: How Rafting Brings Out Courage in Inner City Outings

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November 16, 2012

How Rafting Brings Out Courage in Inner City Outings

Rodrigo Mendez. Photo courtesy San Francisco Foundation. Rodrigo won a 2012 young leader award from the foundation.

Nearly every Inner City Outings leader and kid can tell you when they first heard about the Sierra Club program that connects city youth with nature. For Rodrigo Mendez of San Francisco, ICO reached him through Mission Graduates, which helps kindergarten through high school students with their education. 

"They came to our school. It seemed pretty cool when I saw the pictures of people rafting, so I decided to sign up for the trip," he says.

DSC08402Many kids have no idea what to expect on an ICO trip. That’s because ICO reaches youth who rarely see the outdoors outside an urban setting, or even know that such beautiful, natural places exist. ICO serves 14,000 kids a year and carries out more than 800 outings across the country.

Rodrigo, like many ICO kids, signed up because "many of my close friends decided to sign up." But like many ICO kids, it was the experience that opened his eyes to what was out there beyond the city limits.

"I can't really describe my first experience, but I will say that it was the best day of my life," he says. "One, because I was interacting with nature again. Two, there was a lot of adrenaline involved. I love extreme sports so that made it even better. It was like being at a fair full of games. At that time I was 17 and I went to the south fork of the American River. So awesome."

Now Rodrigo is an ICO volunteer and apprentice guide.

"I told myself that I wanted to be part of it, and the good news was that ICO trained people for free," he says. "All I had to do was apply."

One thing that distinguishes ICO is the program's connection with at-risk youth who live in areas overcome with gangs and drugs. Many ICO leaders have witnessed kids become inspired to right their path as they go on more outdoor trips. Rodrigo agrees that nature has a lot more to offer than just the scenery.

Rodrigo, on the left, getting ready to go.

"Nature can do many things to people and I do believe it can stop a youth from heading in the wrong direction," he says. "Before ICO, I was engaged in a group that was organized by Mission Graduates. This group had different types of people and some wanted to cause trouble. Some were gangsters who never liked to be around normal people, but by being in this group, they stopped themselves from being with other gangsters on the street. These people who thought they were just good at doing bad things learned how to be a leader of a group, took responsibility to be there, and helped those they once hated."

Rodrigo is now a high school senior with a 4.0 grade point average. Between classes and studying, Rodrigo can be found at his favorite outdoor spot: the south fork of the American River.

"The river gives you many challenges to beat -- or get beat," he says. "That river was different every time I saw it, so it’s not like you can really memorize it. I remember my first time. Everything was cool and calm, but suddenly our instructor said, 'Close your eyes.' I didn't know what was ahead of us, but I decided to do it and I gave all my trust to him, because I knew he was the expert.

"I was following his commands with my eyes closed. All of a sudden, he yelled, 'Open your eyes!' We were about to crush a huge wave. I was scared but happy at the same time. I paddled even harder as he screamed, ‘Paddle hard, hard, hard!’ I was like, this man knows what he’s doing. I asked if we could do it again and he said yes. It was like being afraid of falling into the water but not caring at all because it was hilarious. That gave me courage to be part of this awesome organization."

Want to get involved? Learn more about Inner City Outings!


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