On any given summer day in Minnesota, scores of families head to “the lake” for the weekend; some with boats in tow, others with kayaks or canoes strapped to the roof of their cars.
But for hundreds of thousands of inner city children, such experiences are often out of reach. Many have never dipped so much as a toe in a local lake or had the opportunity to view their city from the river on which it was likely founded.
In 2014, RBC partnered with Wilderness Inquiry to bridge that gap with a 3-year, $300,000 sponsorship of the organization’s Canoemobile program.
Canoemobile inspires the next generation of citizens to experience, enjoy, explore, and protect public lands and waterways with a roving fleet of six hand-made, 24-foot Voyageur canoes that travel across America.
“So many of the kids who come to us have never been on the water and they are afraid,” says Julie Storck, associate director at Wilderness Inquiry. “They get in the boats, they paddle and you can see a change in them in just a matter of a few hours. By the end of the day, they have huge smiles and have built up their confidence.”
That was the case for Shalesa Johnson, who first connected with Wilderness Inquiry more than five years ago as a freshman at Central High School in St. Paul.
Unlike many of her peers in the group, Johnson grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, camping, hiking and fishing with her family. So the water was not at all unfamiliar to her. Still, she had never been in a canoe.
“It was really scary at the beginning and I felt like I was going to flip over,” Johnson, now a sophomore in college, recalls. But by the end of the day, Johnson felt entirely comfortable. Soon she was encouraging peers to try Canoemobile, too. “I thought I could show my friends that, ‘Hey, if I am doing it, you can too.’”
The program, she says, is unique because it enables city kids to experience the natural world around them in ways that sitting in a classroom won’t allow.
“Through RBC’s support over the past three years, Canoemobile has greatly expanded its reach,” said Storck.
RBC’s support increased annual participation in Canoemobile by 98%— from 15,285 in 2013 to 30,268 in 2016— for a total of 79,085 youth served in 56 cities coast to coast.
In addition to helping kids overcome barriers and build confidence – on the water, and in life – Canoemobile aims to expose the next generation to the Earth’s precious natural resources and gives them a new perspective.
In fact, 86% of youth who participate in Canoemobile say they are more interested in protecting their environment and report stronger connections to nature.
“Wilderness Inquiry has done an incredible job with Canoemobile by not only by getting kids out on the water, but by giving them an introduction to the outdoors,” said Hal Tearse, branch manager for RBC Wealth Management’s Minnetonka office, who helped with RBC-sponsored Canoemobile events in Minneapolis and in Washington D.C. “The program was a great fit for RBC, where youth education, protecting the water and the environment are all a big focus of our community giving efforts.”
Even Shalesa Johnson, who already enjoyed nature before she got involved in Canoemobile, says the program had a profound impact on how she views the environment. After participating a few times in the program in high school, she came back as an intern and a staff member for Wilderness Inquiry. Today, as a student at the University of Minnesota, she is studying fisheries and wildlife.
“My experience with Wilderness Inquiry definitely strengthened my appreciation for the environment,” Johnson said. “But it also provided me with a vision of what I would like to focus on and do in the future.”
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