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VOL. 126 | NO. 51 | Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Back to Nature

GOU celebrates fifth year with hiking, fishing trip

Michael Waddell

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Gorgeous weather on Saturday highlighted the Great Outdoors University’s fifth anniversary celebration at Winchester Farms, just east of Memphis along Interstate 40.

Participants in Saturday’s Great Outdoors University’s fifth anniversary celebration at Winchester Farms  enjoyed numerous outdoors activities from fishing and hiking to observing the West Tennessee farm’s wildlife.
(Photo: Kate Friedman)

A group of 23 kids ages 7 to 17 had the chance to hike, fish and enjoy nature on the 900-acre farm owned by GOU founder and primary benefactor Peter Schutt, who has just been named the National Wildlife Federation’s National Volunteer of the Year. He is the first Tennessean to earn the honor.

Schutt is president and CEO of The Daily News Publishing Co. Inc.

The GOU program took its first trip in March 2006 with a visit to Shelby Forest and has since become an integral part of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s educational work. The goal of the youth conservation education program is to connect inner-city kids with the great outdoors in meaningful, life-changing ways. Participants include children who are not likely to have the opportunity to learn about and experience the outdoors.

During the past five years, GOU has provided more than 8,000 experiences for children in Memphis and Nashville, including fishing excursions, nature walkabouts and summer day camps. GOU partners with 14 local youth organizations, including ScoutReach, BRIDGES, Girls Inc., St. George’s Memphis campus, Youth Villages and Concord Academy.

“Kids everywhere – rural, urban and suburban – are just not as connected to nature as they have been in past generations,” said GOU Director Martha Lyle Ford. “We try to reach out to at-risk kids that have the least access to the outdoors.”

The impact of Saturday’s trip was obvious as the children laughed and played outside in the beautiful weather. They were able to study birds, insects and animal tracks on an hour-long hike around the property’s lake. Then they spent the afternoon fishing, many of them for the first time.

“The experience of being outdoors really has a positive influence physically, mentally, intellectually, socially and spiritually, and it gives kids a chance to just be kids outdoors,” Lyle Ford said.

GOU Program Coordinator Kate Friedman has been involved with environmental programs for more than 20 years, and she feels the GOU is the most rewarding.

“This program really makes an impression on these kids’ lives and gives them a chance for one day to do something they’ve never had the chance to do before,” Friedman said. “They are just so thrilled to be outdoors enjoying themselves and just relaxing outside, so it’s really great to see the transformation in them.”

Damon Pace, 12, a student at Riverview Middle School, is one of several children who have been on multiple GOU trips.

“I like it because we are outdoors and being more active than if we were home in front of the TV,” he said. “I’ve found out a lot of things that I never knew, like that trees help us breathe by producing oxygen.”

GOU field trip leaders on hand included John Sharpe, Allan Trently, Debbie LaChapelle, Audrey Bohl and Jackie Clarke. Other ScoutReach leaders in attendance were Michael Burtis, Stanley Richardson and Ethel Brown.

“We work with aftercare programs in schools and go into neighborhoods people don’t want to go into, areas that are considered underprivileged,” said Brown, who is a ScoutReach troop leader. “It helps to keep the kids off the streets and out of gangs.”

In 2009, GOU expanded from Memphis to Nashville, and today the program offers more than 50 outings each year. Discussions are under way now to take the GOU program into other states. Future expansion is also likely in other Tennessee cities like Chattanooga and Knoxville, as well as more rural areas of the state.

Lyle Ford points out that despite the bad economy of the past few years, GOU has increased its staff and expanded its number of trips and partners.

“We hope to continue to expand the program to wherever the opportunity presents itself,” she said.

GOU sponsored its first out-of-state trip in October when it took a group to Washington. The trip was such a huge success that a similar trip is in the works for this July.

Schutt envisioned and created the program in 2005 after working with the Boy Scouts and the ScoutReach program in Memphis. He realized that inner-city children did not have the same opportunities to experience nature as other kids so he connected with Mike Butler, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s CEO, about forming GOU to provide nature hikes, fishing trips and other day-long adventures to those children in need.

Schutt provided GOU’s initial funding, and he remains a primary contributor. The program also gets financial support from private donors and organizations such as the Plough Foundation and the Austin Foundation. GOU receives no state, federal or local government money.

The Daily News provides corporate support to GOU.

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