Deep in the woods of River Bend Park, children’s laughter rang clear beneath a canopy of rustling leaves. They skipped and skidded their way along winding dirt trails, backed by a chorus of chirps and tweets instead of gunshots.
The eight boys and girls traveled to the park from Meadowview, Elder Creek and other Sacramento neighborhoods where crime is a part of daily life. This summer they’ll get a reprieve from the violence – at least when they’re taking part in a special program that helps expose urban kids to the outdoors.
“This reins us back to where we need to be, away from the cars and the noise,” said Carlton Malone, 12, of south Sacramento. “There’s a lot of bad people in my area. I’ve gotten used to it after a while, but it’s been getting sketchy lately. Getting close to Fourth of July, fireworks and gunfire sound the same.”
Malone and about 20 other urban youths age 5 to 12 will exercise, meditate and learn outdoor skills this summer on the American River Parkway, the 23-mile stretch of public land between Old Sacramento and Folsom Lake. The Recreate for Health program is a new project of the American River Parkway Foundation, made possible by a $25,000 grant from Dignity Health.
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The foundation partnered with two neighborhood nonprofit groups, Always Knocking and Hooked on Fishing Not on Violence, to recruit children who might not otherwise get enough time outdoors.
So far the kids have cycled, hiked, created nature-inspired art and tried yoga. Throughout the summer they’ll also learn about bicycle maintenance, nutrition and first aid, said Chris Aguirre, director of development for the foundation.
While suburban children often get out into nature with their families, most of the children in Recreate for Health didn’t even know the American River Parkway existed because they didn’t have a way to get there, Aguirre said. On program days, organizers pick up participants and transport them to a parkway site, where activities and snacks are provided free of cost.
“These kids should have just as much access as everybody else – this is a public health asset,” he said. “And it’s not a one-and-done. Having these ongoing experiences, and multiple access points, that’s important.”
Children from households with annual incomes below $40,000 are about 20 percent less likely than wealthier families to engage in nature activities, and about 12 percent are less likely to visit parks and playgrounds, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. About 9 percent of Americans over age 6 who recreated outdoors in 2015 were African American and 8 percent were Hispanic, compared to 74 percent who were white, according to the latest participation report from the Outdoor Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group.
Residents in certain south Sacramento, Arden, Foothill Farms and Oak Park zip codes have Sacramento County’s highest rates of obesity, diabetes and asthma, partially due to a lack of safe places to recreate, said Ashley Brand, director of community health and outreach for Dignity Health. These areas have also been identified as food deserts, where fruits and vegetables are hard to come by.
“As a preventive measure, if you’re reducing stress, reducing anxiety, giving youth an outlet in a positive environment, it’s only going to improve their overall health and well-being,” Brand said. “It really presents opportunities to improve your health spiritually, mentally and physically.”
Joshua Dent, 12, recently learned to fish from Tim Poole at Hooked on Fishing, Not on Violence. Now, it’s a go-to stress release, he said.
“It keeps me calm,” Dent said. “I’m usually getting in trouble a lot … whenever somebody makes fun of me, or messes with me. Out here, I hear birds, hawks, lizards and turkeys. It’s pretty cool for me to learn about these things.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, Dent and other kids played improvisational games with an artist from Sacramento’s B Street Theatre. In one game, they had to use body language to communicate while speaking gibberish. In another, they tried to provoke their peers to get up from a seat by convincing them of an imaginary scenario, such as a spider on their back or ice cream on their shoe.
Afterward, the children sat around the campsite and reflected on what they’d learned about annunciation, creative expression and acting. They then launched into a brief round of high-speed tag, despite the triple-digit heat.
Greg King, founder of Always Knocking, said just getting the kids away from broken homes and dangerous streets helps them heal after trauma.
“In our community, we have a moment of silence for those who pass away,” he said. “Out here, we take a moment of silence to enjoy nature, to hear the birds, the quiet. … It’s such a huge experience to be able to sit here and know our young people are relaxed.”