Making A Difference in Your Community : Volunteers Sought to Keep Dream Alive

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Former park ranger Brad Childs didn't have time to feel disappointed when the outdoor programs he coordinated were threatened by budget cuts in 1982.

Just three years after the establishment of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Childs needed to find a way to continue the natural history seminars and outdoor recreation clinics he organized to help expose people to the mountains, people who might otherwise only see them from a distance.

Working out of his Canoga Park apartment, Childs single-handedly continued the tours and natural history instruction he began as a recreational program coordinator for the National Park Service.

Nearly 10 years later, the Agoura Hills-based Wilderness Institute exists as a testimony to Childs' tenacity and dedication to outdoor education.

"I continued the programs almost like a private enterprise," Childs recalls. "I volunteered a lot and was paid as an instructor by the Parks Service, and based on the success of those initial programs received a grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy."

The original grant was for continuing the Recreational Transit program that provided buses to bring inner-city kids to visit the mountains.

By 1984, Childs combined the Recreational Transit program with others for the general public and formed the Wilderness Institute, a nonprofit group that has grown to employ 26 paid staffers and a volunteer corps of more than 100--more than a third of which are frOm the san Fernando Valley.

Today, the Wilderness Institute runs hiking, rappelling and nature-walk programs for the general public; group services, primarily for schools and youths at risk of falling into lives of crime or drug abuse; special services for people with disabilities, including the 4 1/2-mile "Wheel to the Sea" wheelchair hike; and corporate programs serving groups from companies. The group boasts a mailing list of more than 25,000 people who participate in, donate to or otherwise support its programs.

But bringing people to the mountains who might not otherwise get there is what brings Childs and others at the Wilderness Institute the most gratification.

"In the programs for the disabled, for probably 30% to 40% of the people, it's their first time ever off of concrete, their first time experiencing the wilderness," said Wynn Allen of Westlake, the Wilderness Institute's director of advertising. "It's a wonderful opportunity for a wheelchair-bound person to see what they can do."

Allen recalls a letter the institute received from a handicapped boy who spent most of his life going from one foster home to another.

After participating in the "Wheel to the Sea" program, "he wrote saying it was the first time he was ever surrounded by trees," Allen said.

Volunteers, whether they assist with fund raising, clerical duties, answering phones or helping to push a wheelchair through a creek or up a steep hill, make it possible for the Wilderness Institute, which is funded by nominal service fees as well as public and private donations, to carry out its mission of educating people about the value of National Parks lands.

"Just helping by giving someone a ride, picking up someone at their home and taking them to where they can catch one of our buses, makes the difference between being locked up in the house or being able to come out to the trail to smell the plants and see the wildlife," Childs said.

Helping a sightless person enjoy mountain climbing for the first time or seeing someone who has lost their hearing rappel down a jagged cliff are the kinds of volunteer experiences that await anyone with the caring and dedication necessary to join the Wilderness Institute.

Training is provided by program coordinators. To volunteer at the Wilderness Institute, contact the Volunteer Center of the San Fernando Valley at (818-908-5066).

Getting Involved is a weekly listing of volunteering opportunities. Please address prospective listings to Getting Involved, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818-772-3338).

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