By Chevont’e Alexander
When you hear “The Great Outdoors”, do you picture the classic 1988 film with Dan Aykroyd and John Candy? Well, not exactly.
Exploring the great outdoors by rock climbing, fishing, or hiking is secretly something every adult wishes they had a chance of doing when they were a child. Blue Sky Fund accomplishes just that, exposing inner-city youth to the great outdoors. Fritz Knapp, the founder of Blue Sky Fund, and Lawson Wijesooriya, its current Executive Director, shared a concern that children do not play in the outdoors like they should. With the influx of video games, television, and the Internet, sad to say, kids forget what it means when a parent says, ‘go play outside’!
So, in 2003 Fritz Knapp began sending kids to summer camp out of a personal passion to connect Richmond students with the summer camp experience. Years later, in 2006 Lawson Wijesooriya joined Fritz’s mission to send kids to camp and expanded the vision for Blue Sky to include year round programming of hiking, backpacking, and team building. Fritz and Wijesooriya continued to send kids to camp each summer, while adding in other programming which led to the founding of Blue Sky Fund in 2007.
The organization really took shape when Oak Grove/Bellemeade Elementary School reached out to Blue Sky Fund for assistance with their third grade failing testing scores. The school was facing losing their accreditation. Soon, the Explorers program was born and Blue Sky Fund began to grow rapidly to include more programs throughout the school year.
How can a child know what a habitat is if they have never seen one? How can a child understand science terms if they do not recognize it in their own community? The questions Oak Grove/Bellemeade posed to Blue Sky Fund is the same need the organization was trying to fulfill.
The non-profit organization, now in its fifth year, helps to provide transformational experiences for urban youth through outdoor education. Their core values focus on discovery, unity, respect, and stewardship. Through discovering nature, working together with our community, respecting others and ourselves we are being a great steward and citizen in our communities.
“Blue Sky’s mission is about using experiences to engage young people in the world around them- expanding their horizons to believe in a better future. “ says Wijesooriya.
Directed by a strategic plan developed in 2008, the number of children served has increased roughly 300% over the last three years. Strong partnerships exist between Blue Sky and organizations such as Communities in Schools of Richmond (CIS), Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), Peter Paul Development Center, Anna Julia Cooper School, and the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club in Church Hill. Along with Blue Sky’s staff, these partners, many dedicated volunteers, and an engaged board make these educational and leadership growth experiences possible for many children, most of whom are near or below the poverty level.
Blue Sky has begun strategic efforts to focus on Richmond’s East End, with a goal of increasing the number and depth of Blue Sky experiences a particular child has.
The BIG Picture
Poverty is defined as earning at or less than $21, 954 for a family of four. Twenty two percent of Richmond City residents fall below the poverty line. Thirty five percent of children under 18 in Richmond City live in households defined as poor. (Data based on 2005 -2009 American Community Survey)
In one study of urban, at-risk children, 56 percent reported never having spent time in a natural setting. Blue Sky Fund wants to change that. The same study also indicated that outdoor education can help urban at-risk children overcome the effects of poverty. There is a 27 percent increase in measured mastery of science concepts, enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills, gains in self-esteem, gains in positive environmental behavior, and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.
Meet Brittany. (Not her real name) She is a graduating senior and heading to a four- year college in the fall. She is beating the odds of her demographic (low-income, African American, single female household). Brittany came from an abusive past and is now thriving with her adoptive mother in Richmond. She has gone to summer camp twice on a Blue Sky scholarship and she participated in the 2008-2009’s Outward Bound Together crew (now Outdoor Leadership Institute).
“I learned how to accept challenges and take risks because that is how you grow in life! I just want to thank Blue Sky Fund for the wonderful opportunity you gave me. I enjoyed watermarks so much. It was like a home away from home. I enjoyed the worship, the people, and the great fellowship. I opened up about things in my life that I wouldn’t usually share with anybody especially strangers. But God placed a spirit of comfort on me that I didn’t even feel like I was among strangers, but family. I really appreciate you allowing me to have this great opportunity. I would really like to attend next year again or even work there,” comments Brittany.