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Outdoor Recreation as a Motivational Tool for Youth

By Dana Bell, Project Coordinator

The most commonly asked question by kids in these programs is, "When can we come back?"

Just how many "at-risk" young teenagers can walk in to a group of adult strangers at a national symposium and, with poise, participate in their discussions as an equal? Thirteen year-old Mike Pool did just this at the 2000 National Trails Symposium held in Redding, California. Mike is a youth member of Off-Road PALs, a partnership program of the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of California State Parks and the California Police Activities League.

Off-Road PALs provides young people primarily from inner-city areas with a hands-on experience of how to safely ride off-road motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The two-day program begins with a full day of training in rider safety, environmental awareness, and trail ethics. The program concludes with a trail ride to practice their skills and enjoy the outdoors. The off-highway vehicles (OHVs) are used as a tool to develop and instill personal values, civic and personal responsibility, and environmental awareness.

photo: Youth crew removing stray rocks from a California State Park
Youth crew removing stray rocks from a California State Park

Mike, in his oversized but very neat t-shirt and jeans and kind of shy but ready smile, is a great example of a young person participating in and benefiting from an OHV youth program. Throughout the United States such programs have proven that off-highway motorcycles and ATVs are powerful motivational tools that help young people discover a more positive future. These vehicles are a magnet for young people and provide an exciting opportunity for kids, cops, and adults to work together.

To share an example of OHV youth programs the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council coordinated a session, "Outdoor Recreation as a Motivational Tool for Youth", at the Trails Symposium. The Symposium, held only once every two years attracts land managers and trail organization leaders from all over the country. To broaden the session audience and effectively convey common needs of outdoor youth programs the session included a backpacking and mountain bicycling program, in addition to Off-Road PALs.

Big City Mountaineers, a nonprofit organization, offers dramatic learning experiences to disadvantaged urban teenagers. The program uses eight-day wilderness backpacking and canoeing programs with trained adult volunteer mentors to teach outdoor skills, teamwork, and goal achievement.

Youth Adventures, created by the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association (CORBA) coordinates mountain bike excursions to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area for inner-city kids from Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The commonality of these programs is that they get the kids out of the city, change the image of adults and cops from adversaries to mentors, and provide them with a more positive vision of what their lives can be. These programs and programs similar to them scattered around the country are in great demand yet limited by basic needs.

A critical component of the session was for the presenters to provide information on program challenges, needs, and what land managers or interested organizations can do to enhance existing programs or to develop new ones.

These programs utilize a common variety of funding means including corporate and government grants, private contributions, and fundraising activities. A challenge is time. The time to identify, apply for, and receive grants and to organize and conduct fundraising activities must be recognized and allowed for. Waived entrance or special-use permit fees, assistance with grant applications, volunteers with grant-writing or fundraising experience, and contacts with potential sponsors or partners are needed

Youth programs always need more volunteers. The featured programs tap into trail enthusiast organizations, police and government staff, interested adults, and parents for their volunteers. Untapped or under-tapped sources that can be explored include the American Association of Retired Persons, company volunteer programs, special interest community organizations, and diverse recreation groups.

A huge barrier for inner-city programs is transportation. Many of the participants come from singe parent families or multi-tasking families who cannot provide rides or cannot afford to send their children by public transportation. And often there is no public system that even provides transportation to activity sites. Youth programs must be able to provide transportation. Potential support resources could be car dealership and company shuttle vehicles, and again, diverse recreation groups. Partnerships between motorized and non-motorized recreation groups can greatly expand a volunteer base, transportation opportunity, and other program needs. An important side benefit may be increased understanding and respect between the adults participating in the partnership.

Program needs always include equipment for the young people, volunteers, and staff. Not surprisingly equipment maintenance from wear and tear and kids being kids is also a basic need. Corporations and small companies not able to provide direct cash donations may be very willing to provide equipment. Some companies, including Walmart, K-Mart, and Home Depot have established recreation or youth-oriented support programs. Grant programs, community organizations, and again, other recreation interest groups are all potential sources of equipment and maintenance assistance.

The most commonly asked question by kids in these programs is, "When can we come back?" The question we should ask ourselves in return is, "How can we make it possible for these kids to come back?" Then we should make it happen! The benefits to young people, to our recreation, and to society are certainly worth the effort.

For further information on these outstanding programs contact:

Off-Road PALs, California Department of Parks and Recreation, Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division, 1725 23rd Street, Suite 220, Sacramento, CA 95816-7100; Phone: 916-324-4442; Web:

California Police Activities League, 305 Washington Street, Oakland, CA 94607; Phone: 510-645-1875

Big City Mountaineers, 210 Beaver Brook Canyon Road, Evergreen, CO 80439; Phone: 303-670-3202; Web:

Youth Adventures, Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association; Phone: 818-882-2839; Web:

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