Outward Bound, at 40, Still Broadening Horizons

Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Christian Ramirez's knowledge of the great outdoors began and ended at South Park along Avalon Boulevard in South Los Angeles.

"Yeah, a city park, that's all I knew," said Ramirez, 19. "But even then, I didn't even want to go outdoors because of the violence."

Now his hiking resume reads like a page out of Outdoors magazine: Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, the Grand Canyon, North Cascades National Park, Joshua Tree, San Simeon. And Griffith Park.

That was Ramirez's first hiking trip with Outward Bound Adventures, a nonprofit group devoted to teaching inner-city youths about nature and the environment. On Saturday, Ramirez was among the dozens of youths and several hundred supporters who gathered at the group's new Pasadena facility to celebrate its 40-year anniversary.

"There are few nonprofits around these days that have lasted 40 years," said Kenneth Preston, president of the board of directors. "But the real milestone is that we have taken 18,000 kids out into the wilderness over the years."

For participants like Ramirez, who said his world consisted of going to school and the corner store, a hike through Griffith Park was an adventure to remember.

"I was amazed that there was a park that big in L.A.," he said of his first hike. "I hiked all over the hills and considered that being in the wilderness back then."

Today, Ramirez is attending Los Angeles Community College and wants to attend a university and major in wildlife biology. He has attended science camps, is a recycling fanatic and has learned that a challenging hike has as much to do with physical stamina as mental determination and teamwork.

Those are the kinds of lessons that Charles Thomas, the executive director of Outward Bound Adventures, said are important goals of the organization, founded by Pasadena elementary school teacher Helen Mary Williams in 1963.

Williams taught at Cleveland Elementary School, which was attended by baseball great Jackie Robinson. An avid outdoorswoman, Williams thought her students could benefit from time outside the city, and she began a Junior Audubon Club. Soon, field trips turned into camping trips with families and teachers. Williams and several parents then established the Outward Bound program.

Hiking and camping trips are the backdrops for lessons on ecology, wildlife and conservation. Volunteer teachers, rangers and other professionals accompany the youths. They also encourage participants to investigate careers in environmental fields, and there is a long roster of Outward Bound alumni who went on to become park rangers, biologists and forest firefighters.

Several teenagers at the event Saturday were quick to give tours of their new supply room, filled with 200 backpacks, 130 pairs of hiking boots, 100 sleeping bags, 40 tents and scores of mess kits, lanterns and insect repellent containers. There's even a wall covered with jackets and coats.

"A lot of the kids just arrive here with the clothes on their backs and a sweatshirt," Thomas said. The trips are paid for by scholarships from the organization, which has an operating budget that has ranged from $700,000 to $380,000 annually, depending on grants and donations, Thomas said.

For Tobari Crawford, 15, a sophomore at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles, nothing has proven as motivational as his trek through New Army Pass in the Sierra Nevada: elevation 12,400 feet.

"I didn't know how much I could push myself," said Crawford, who weighs 120 pounds and was carrying a 35-pound backpack during the hike last summer. "It was 11 a.m. The sun was high; it was hot. I was tired, but I kept pushing and we made it."

Jessica Martinez, 17, of South Los Angeles, finds peace only in the outdoors.

The thought of her December camping trip is what's keeping her going right now. At 17, she's a high school junior, takes care of her younger sister after school, and runs the household until her parents come home from work.

"I have so many chores, so much to do at home, that I never get any time for myself," Martinez said. "And out our neighborhood, there's so much noise -- the cars, the violence -- it's hard to see out of it all."

Until she goes on a mountain hike.

"It's the only place I can think clearly," she said. "In the mountains you can hear the calm breeze in your ears, and it tells you everything is going to be OK."

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