Is it possible to reconnect young people with the earth? Connecting with nature is tough for children who are coming of age in the digital era and kids without access to outdoor activities. Between the allure of screens, other extracurriculars, peer pressure to stay inside, and inequitable opportunities, it is no wonder kids are not getting out

“When we first took kids out into the woods, several of them were wearing hoodies, and they pulled the hoods closely around their faces,” said Randy Senzig, President and Executive Director of the Center for Human-Earth Restoration (CHER). He discussed the emotional state of children on their first camping trip through one of CHER’s programs. “They jumped and jerked every time an insect flew by. They were petrified by a daddy-long-legs!”

Senzig and the dedicated staff and volunteers at CHER are working to rebuild the human-earth relationship that they believe to be fundamental to human well-being. Building a deep relationship with the earth benefits the environment, the human spirit, and the community at large. The principles that guide CHER helped to guide Senzig and his team to create an after-school program that helps connect children to nature.

The Neighborhood Ecology Corps (NEC) is CHER’s response to the lack of environmental education within the public school system and to the increasing disconnection of youth from nature. NEC is an afternoon middle school program that focuses on nature and community. NEC began as a year-long program designed to acclimate children to the outdoors. Since then, CHER has developed two, three, and four-year options based on positive feedback from families. The program is offered at no cost to students or their families and offers a host of opportunities.

A holistically designed program, NEC is not only about taking kids outside. Students learn about science and wildlife, and they also learn how to build fulfilling relationships and respect for one another.

Additionally, the curriculum includes community service projects like building small community gardens, working with the city of Raleigh to plant trees, or to do stream cleanups.

NEC uses an outdoor leadership camp designed especially for them by NC State Parks, with whom they frequently partner. Because the program has been so successful in connecting kids with nature, North Carolina State Parks provides the programming for CHER free of charge, and plans to replicate the outdoor leadership model designed for NEC.

Bridging gaps for students who have historically lacked access to the outdoors is a key component of the NEC program. Many of the students participating in NEC are African American, and live in marginalized communities, where Senzig explained, a lack of outdoor opportunities is prevalent. Due in part to the history of slavery and colonization, and the impact of segregation, African American children have historically been less likely than their white peers to have access to outdoor recreation. Therein lies the problem that Senzig is trying to address: a lack of opportunity.

The students are not the only ones feeling the impact of NEC. According to Senzig, the parents make the program. “Most of all, our parents have been super supportive. They make all kinds of efforts to get their kids to this after-school program, because they see the value and how it is impacting their children.” Parents are also excited about attending trips with their children, and comment on how often their kids talk about what they learn. “I see changes in parents in the way they talk and listen to their kids,” Senzig said.

And it’s not just a benefit to the students and their parents. The impact of Neighborhood Ecology Corps spreads from these individual families out to the broader community. The students in the program are overjoyed by their experiences in nature, and their parents witness the positive results of community engagement – and they share their excitement. The program is attracting national attention due to their innovative approach to outdoor leadership, and it is furthering the mission of the Center for Human-Earth Restoration.

Senzig and his team are proving it absolutely is possible to connect young people, and the rest of us, back to nature. Once the kids have the opportunity to get outside and become acclimated to being in the woods, they forget about the lack of electricity and the abundance of insects. Students comment about how peaceful they feel and how “awesome” camping is. “They pick up a handful of soil and there are three or four insects in it and they are just amazed,” said Senzig about a group of campers.

“They are really reflecting on what we want them to. They can relate nature back to their classwork, on a deeper level now. It’s inspiring to watch.”

– Written by Rosemary Stump 

CHER is a grantee partner of the Foundation, and we are proud to invest in their work.