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VOL. 127 | NO. 217 | Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Great Outdoors University Hits Milestone, Eyes Expansion


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The Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s Great Outdoors University program is fulfilling its goal to connect inner-city children with nature in meaningful, life-changing ways.

A student examines salmon berries while on a Great Outdoors University trip this summer to the Cascade Mountains in Washington.

(Photos: Sonya Wood Mahler, GOU Statewide Manager)

The youth conservation education and outdoor experience program recently surpassed the 12,000 meaningful experiences milestone and now prepares for expansion into North Carolina and Missouri, as well as growing in Tennessee.

The organization’s 2012 calendar is made up of more than 120 trips, with approximately 1,800 children getting the chance to participate. The program operates year-round, taking kids to natural destinations for Saturday field trips, weekend overnight trips and school break day-camps. Participants include children who are not likely to have the opportunity to learn about and experience the great outdoors.

“We just want the kids to have a chance to have fun in nature,” said Kate Friedman, GOU Memphis program coordinator, who explains that organizational outings include outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, exploring, spelunking, rock climbing, bird watching and even building shelters.

Peter Schutt, National Wildlife Federation National Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and president of The Daily News Publishing Co. Inc., formed GOU in Memphis in March 2006. The organization expanded to Nashville in 2009 and provided its first trip in Knoxville last year.

GOU Memphis will conduct roughly 50 trips this year and plans for the same number in 2013.

Day trips, usually consisting of 20 kids each, take place nearly every weekend (excluding holidays) from March to December. GOU touts all of its trips as having physical exercise, conservation and natural resource learning, outdoor skills development and meaningful experiences with adult leaders and role models.

“For day trips we take the kids to places like Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, T.O. Fuller State Park, the Wolf River, Wall Doxey State Park in Mississippi and Village Creek State Park in Arkansas, as well as some private properties and church retreat centers,” said Friedman, who has been involved with environmental programs for more than 20 years.

During 2012 GOU Memphis has partnered with the Boy Scouts’ ScoutReach program, Girls Inc., BRIDGES, Youth Villages, St. George’s Memphis campus and the Boys and Girls Club of Brownsville.

“We love the GOU. They’ve been fabulous. Our kids have been able to go out and enjoy themselves away from the stresses of school. It’s great for the learning, the sportsmanship, and the camaraderie,” said Anne Cannon, principal at Youth Villages’ Nicholas Hobbs Academy. “The kids have participated in bonfires, fishing trips, camping trips and nature walks. Many of them have never had anyone teach them about nature, so to be able to go out and learn and interact directly has been a real privilege for them.”

Students participating in the Great Outdoors University’s annual trip to the Cascade Mountains in Washington this summer got the opportunity to enjoy new experiences, including crossing a waterfall.

GOU also conducts larger outings like family fishing trips for as many as 50 people.

“We encourage the kids to bring family members because we hope the parents have so much fun with their kids that they will want to do it again,” Friedman said.

In July, eight boys from the Memphis area were chosen to go on GOU’s annual trip to the Cascade Mountains in Washington.

“The kids were great, and the weather was perfect. We took them sailing, whale watching, hiking, and camping, and we even explored an island,” said Sonya Wood Mahler, GOU statewide manager since October 2011. “None of the boys had ever been on a plane or a boat, and many had never tent camped, and they loved it.”

Great Outdoors University is currently in the process of franchising into states outside of Tennessee with the help of the National Wildlife Federation.

“The states that we’re working on right now are North Carolina and Missouri, with hopes of going into several others next year,” Mahler said. “We are also hoping to expand inside Tennessee to Chattanooga and Knoxville in the future.”

GOU conducted its first trips in Charlotte, N.C., during the second half of this year, and the first excursions in Missouri will begin with the start of the 2013 season next March. In Tennessee, GOU took only its second trip to the Knoxville area this year and plans another for 2013, while Chattanooga expansion talks are still in the very early stages.

The Daily News supports the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and Great Outdoors University.

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