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Community Commentary: At-risk kids get in touch with nature

September 05, 2011|By Carol Lawrence

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 Be shy and withdrawn?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?

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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.

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