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Embracing the Wild

Exploring Nature's Essence

Fostering a Dynamic Community

At REACH, we believe the pursuit of wildness resonates with the idea of returning to roots and embracing a simpler, more authentic way of living that can be particularly empowering for refugees seeking to establish their place in the world. Such an approach can be instrumental in helping young newcomers to not only adapt to their new surroundings but also to thrive and contribute meaningfully to community life.


How can we integrate the "tonic of wildness" into our daily urban lives?

How does nature challenge and invigorate our personal and collective journeys?

Can the pursuit of wildness be a unifying voice for village life?


As we release the vibrant spring of 2024, we are thrilled to share the progress of our county-wide initiative to introduce more local newcomer community members, particularly refugee and asylum-seeking youth and families, to the enchanting wildness that surrounds us. The uncharted forests and meadows offer more than just scenery; they provide a sanctuary where new bonds can be formed, and a sense of belonging can flourish.


Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness.

- Henry David Thoreau


American Naturalist Henry David Thoreau indeed celebrated the profound impact of nature on community life, emphasizing its role in fostering a vibrant and cohesive society. Our collaboration with the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) and other key partners has been instrumental in raising awareness about the abundant opportunities for recreation and education within our urban village. These natural spaces serve as a canvas for creating connections, fostering trust, and nurturing friendships among our community members, both old and new.


The concept of "wildness" as a tonic, as eloquently stated by Thoreau, is not just poetic but practical. Engaging with nature through simple acts like bird listening or creek watching has been shown to have a profound impact on well-being and social integration.


Did you know that simple images of nature have prosocial effects in adults and that greener settings are tied to the development of meaningful and trusting friendships between peers? (White, 2012; Chawla et al., 2014; Warber et al., 2015, Weinstein et al., 2009)


During the last 5 1/2 months, REACH has invited hundreds of newcomer youth and families to step out, breathe in, and let nature's magic work its wonders on their lives. I’m excited to share some highlights below.

 

Connecting Newcomers to Nature Initiative


As part of our new endeavor to get more refugee and immigrant community members out to their local preserve, REACH coordinated a Community Leadership Workshop together with FPCC staff from multiple departments. Hosted at the gorgeous Swallow Cliff Pavilion in the southwest suburbs, representatives from Chicago Public Schools, Heartland Human Care Servies, Laureus USA Sport for Good Chicago, Upwardly Global, and World Relief-Chicago spent an afternoon learning about the ways in which they and their stakeholders can access free activities at local nature centers, obtain permits for picnics and community events, borrow gear for hiking and camping, and more. Several guests took a hike in the woods with REACH staff after the workshop to explore the beautiful Sag Valley trails. The next Community Leadership Workshop will be Friday, October 11, from 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM at Thatcher Woods Pavilion. Contact us to learn more!


REACH & FPCC Connecting Newcomers to Nature Initiative, Community Leadership Workshop, March 2024

 

Peer Mentor Leadership Corps 2024


Connecting newcomer community members to nature is something that REACH Peer Mentors have been doing for several years. A key goal of our Youth Leadership Program is to guide each year’s cohort of refugee youth leaders through a series of youth-driven service learning and stewardship projects, many of which are created to share new learning and raise awareness about social and ecojustice issues.


Can the exploration of natural spaces become a catalyst for healing and growth, providing a common ground for stories and experiences to intertwine?


In February, our Peer Mentors created an interactive workshop about the condition of our river ecosystem for other teachers, students, and environmentalists attending the Friends of the Chicago River’s Annual Student Congress. The REACH youth leaders steered workshop participants through a fun and challenging classroom scavenger hunt with hidden clues about the Chicago River and ways to keep it healthy.  In early May, the Peer Mentors led a community river clean up at Blue Star Memorial Woods during the 32nd Annual Chicago River Day. This event, also coordinated by our partners at Friends of the Chicago River, invites thousands of volunteers to work in and along the river system to care for the Chicago-Calumet River system by removing harmful litter at over 70 locations in the city and suburbs. Our Peer Mentors welcomed more than 40 community volunteers at this year’s clean-up site. 


REACH Peer Mentor Leadership Service-Learning Projects, February & May 2024

 

Simultaneous to their coordination of the above two projects, REACH Peer Mentors also spent several months conceiving and designing their first Nature Navigator Event.  Our refugee youth leaders showcased their creativity and knowledge at this public event on May 19. Nearly 55 individuals attended this event at Bunker Hill in Caldwell Woods where REACH Peer Mentors guided them through five nature education stations developed as a way to engage other newcomer community members in interactive outdoor learning experiences that connect them to nature. Learn more about their impressive stations:  Rapid Rescue, Pack & Yak, Artful Nature, Leave No Trace, and Macro Mania, in our Connecting Newcomers Blog Post.


REACH Peer Mentor Nature Navigator Event, May 19, 2024

 

REACH’s Peer Mentor Leadership Program is a vibrant enterprise, driven by the enthusiasm, passion and curiosity of each year’s youth cohort. In 2024, our youth leaders also engaged in their own training endeavors, including new partnerships with Chicago Training Center, Midwest Outdoor Skills Building, and Friends of Big Marsh. Several Peer Mentors practiced their water safety and kayak rescue skills at indoor pool sessions, while others earned CPR and First Aid certification. Our Peer Mentors engaged in a Youth Advocacy Workshop led by REACH and members of Refugee Action Network. The youth leaders honed their technical abilities in archery, hiking, and mountain biking, and developed preliminary rowing skills, which they hope to revisit later this summer.  The Peer Mentors also participated in a weekend Youth Leadership Camp at an organic farm where Farmers Rising staff taught the youth how to run a hashing trail and care for the farm’s chickens and goats, while REACH staff led them through a series of leadership reflections. The participating leaders later led a group of our Weekend Adventure Camp participants through their own hashing trail and animal chores.   

REACH Peer Mentor Leadership Trainings, January - June 2024

 

We take immense pride in our Peer Mentors, who have shown a keen interest in broadening their academic horizons. This spring, a majority of our youth leaders seized the opportunity to participate in college tours, visiting esteemed institutions such as DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their dedication to exploring the realm of higher education is truly admirable. An added highlight of these tours was the participation of several university students, who are also REACH program alumni, sharing their campus life experiences and favorite locales. This interaction with alumni, who have evolved from Peer Mentors to university scholars, offers priceless perspectives that bridge the educational journey from high school to college, fostering a nurturing network that lasts well beyond graduation.


REACH Peer Mentor Leadership Corps College Tours, March & April 2024


 

Weekend Adventure Camps 2024


This year marked a significant expansion of our weekend adventure camps, providing an increased number of day camp opportunities for a growing number of young people each month. Since January, we've welcomed 61 refugee and asylum-seeking youth, introducing them to a variety of new outdoor learning experiences, including snowshoeing, ice skating, biking, archery, and extensive hiking.


These young explorers honed their skills in identifying distant landmarks and collaborated as teams to navigate the terrain using maps and compasses to reach their set goals. They delved into diverse habitats, gaining knowledge on animal care with hands-on experiences with goats and chickens. They've also adopted the Leave No Trace ethos, acquiring skills in outdoor cooking, campfire building, and trail marking. During these adventures, they were encouraged to engage in critical thinking about the ecosystems they explored, recognizing their vital role in our collective well-being and participating in restoration efforts to preserve these precious environments.


Can the wilderness serve as a bridge between diverse cultures?


These pursuits are integral to our Weekend Adventure Camps, which aim to cultivate a deep respect for the intricacies and “wild tonic” of nature while also igniting curiosity and broad-mindedness. The youth are encouraged to stretch their capabilities, embarking on extended hikes along demanding trails, refining their archery skills, and crafting artistic creations inspired by nature. Immersed in the natural world, the REACH youth are developing into proactive, conscientious, and empathetic contributors to society.



REACH Weekend Adventure Camp Sessions, January - June 2024

 

This past winter and spring have been seasons of remarkable activity and growth for us. We extend our deepest gratitude for the generous grants that have been instrumental in advancing our programs. Special thanks for grant support from Camp Out for Kids, the Chicago Fund for Safe & Peaceful Communities, Epstein Community Foundation, Forest Preserves of Cook County,