More local children are experiencing the great outdoors thanks to Ben Baird, coordinator of the Outdoor & Wilderness Learning (OWL) program for Spokane’s West Central Community Center. “From the beginning I realized the kids coming to the community center had limited access to Riverside State Park [even though it’s close by]. A lot of the kids didn’t even know the park existed and had never been on a hike or been camping or fishing. I wanted to give these kids an opportunity to experience the park so that they may cultivate a love for it and develop familiarity with it, enabling them to enjoy the outdoors for a lifetime,” he says.

Baird’s work with local youth was also inspired by the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. “In the book, Louv coins the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in which he explores the issue of today’s youth spending an average of seven hours per day playing video games and lacking outside time. He explains that unstructured outdoor exploration time greatly reduces incidences of ADHD and improves scholastic achievement and overall behavior while developing self-confidence,” says Baird.

Photo courtesy of Eileen McRae.

Photo courtesy of Eileen McRae.

This past spring the OWL program received a No Child Left Inside grant, about $55,000, from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office and Washington State Parks, in addition to $60,000 in matching funds and services from the West Central Community Center, Riverside State Park Foundation, and other organizations, volunteers, and donors, according to Baird. These funds helped expand the OWL’s programming to 52 weeks to help more youth ages 5-18 learn about and experience hiking, fishing, geocaching, wildlife and wildland rehabilitation projects, survival skills, orienteering, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, outdoor ethics, agriculture, geology, and general environmental education. In addition, there is now a “gear library” to loan gear to children, thereby removing barriers to getting them outside, Baird says. Local teachers can also use the program’s resources, such as guided field trips.

Baird has witnessed tremendous results from the OWL programming, such as an 8-year-old boy who overcame behavioral issues associated with his ADHD diagnosis. “Through our outings he has been able to focus his energy on the natural environment around him and has shown a passion for the natural world and natural sciences. I have noticed an improvement in his ability to maintain focus, not only on outdoor outings but in our general youth program activities as well,” Baird says.

Photo courtesy of Eileen McRae.

Photo courtesy of Eileen McRae.

In August, the OWL’s five-day wilderness camp took place within Riverside State Park and Crawford State Park’s Gardner Caves, and included activities such as orienteering, fishing, hiking, and learning Leave No Trace ethics. In the years ahead, Baird wants the OWL program to “give as many kids as possible a life-changing outdoor experience,” he says. “Our pipe dream is to operate out of a larger designated space – an outdoor education facility that would operate as a base camp for all outdoor activities. It would also be equipped with various hands-on learning experiences, such as biology or local geology exhibits, where children and families can discover the natural world through self-guided exploration and facilitated presentations and workshops.”

OWL’s fall calendar of events is available at westcentralcc.org/owl, and program updates are posted on their Facebook page. Volunteers are always welcome, Baird says, and a t-shirt sale fundraiser to support the OWL scholarship program takes place September 19-30 through www.booster.com. //

Amy Silbernagel McCaffree enjoys sharing stories that inspire people to be more active and adventurous. She wrote about local long-distance hikers in August.