Local program inspires love of the outdoors for underserved youth
Forming a circle around the dwindling campfire, the group closes in tight.
Arm in arm, the teens share blessings and concerns from their week. Dishing on everything from football games and upcoming tests to illness in their family and dreams of what's to come.
“I really hope our camping trip is awesome,” one girl says to the group.
Ron Stidham, the head mentor and organizer for the outdoor skills camp, points at her in appreciation.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” Stidham says. “It’ll be fun to be together.”
For the past five years, Stidham has helped organize an outdoor skills training course as part of his Hope For Generations program.
Consisting of mostly middle school students from the Lyrewood Neighborhood in Northwest Oklahoma City, the program takes kids with few after-school activities and tries to steer them toward unique and usually hard-to-come-by hobbies.
They’ve learned to play chess, taken toastmaster classes and even done some boxing training.
But far and away the most popular event the group does each year is the outdoor skills class. Each Tuesday, more than a dozen kids with almost zero experience with camping or being in nature meet on a farm near Yukon and learn a different skill in preparation for an overnight camping trip in mid-November.
Stidham says the group has learned everything from making campfires and how to identify poisonous spiders and snakes to how to properly prepare s'mores.
"They really just fell in love with it," Stidham said. "It was easily our most popular event we did and I think it's just 'cause it was so far outside their normal lives."
Stidham helped start the group after moving to Oklahoma a few years ago and getting involved with youth ministry through Life.Church. Stidham said he had an amazing relationship with his father growing up, as the two would do all kinds of activities together.
But he also recognized that many of the kids in his program don't have the same relationship.
He wanted to help provide it for them.
"I felt like it was my duty to share that with kids who don’t have the same," he said. "But I've gotten way more back than I ever thought.
"Tuesday nights are really the high points of my week."
Stidham was especially interested in connecting with kids in the Lyrewood community, a one-mile stretch of apartments and homes that Stidham says has a reputation for being tough and dangerous.
Stidham said the kids he’s connected with in the past five years from the area have blown that reputation out of the water.
“This is one of the most authentic communities I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “When I first moved in, they were so welcoming and kind. I just knew I wanted to give back in anyway I could.”
Without any particular outdoor knowledge or love himself, Stidham said he thought the outdoor skills academy would probably be a one-time thing.
But the enthusiasm he saw from the kids was too much to ignore.
Demarion Fields was one of those first kids to go through the program. Now 16, Fields is still with the group and working as student mentor.
"I’ve gained more knowledge as we sit here and go through the lessons than I would have ever expected," he said. "I’ve definitely became more of a people person and getting out the house with no experience with the outdoors. … This program has brought me out and helped me become a more well-rounded person than I would have been."
Stidham says the chance for the kids to get outdoors and experience putting up a tent, making a fire and just experiencing nature is one most of them have never had growing up in apartments in the city.
The confidence each of them gains through the program seems to manifest itself in other ways, too.
Volunteer mentor Abi Martin says she often mentors the girls within the group and is always amazed at the deep bonds that she sees develop in just a few weeks.
"When you get people out of their normal environment, it makes you more vulnerable and they are a little more real with each other," Martin said. "To have them out literally in the woods, running around, playing hide and go seek, making fire, and putting up tents … it's just a complete change of scene and just bonds them all together."
The group often pairs each week’s camping lesson with a lesson from the "7 Habits of High Effective Teens," teaching skills like time management, accountability, being proactive and beginning an activity with the end in mind.
Germond Wills is new to the group this year and excited to go camping for the first time. The 12-year-old said he was surprised at how fun learning new skills was and how he’s been putting them to use in his daily life.
Toward the end of a recent meeting in an activity where the group was asked to define what success would look like 20 years down the road.
Wills shared his dream with the group.
“I want to be a hard worker who achieves all my goals,” Wills said. “I want to grow to be a good man and to make my mom proud.”