As a freshman, Hannah Meucci had the idea to start a mentoring program that would get kids outdoors. Now, two-and-a-half years later, Earthbound has just received the Sierra Club Building Bridges Outdoors grant for $15,000 to expand the program.
"There is so much technology that there is a disconnect and less appreciation for the world around," Meucci said. "We want these kids to know their impact."
Earthbound takes 20 to 25 student volunteers to Garfield Elementary, West Central Community Center, Glover Middle School and Shaw Middle School to run an after-school program once a week. Participating kids range from first to fifth grade.
"The grant will allow us to incorporate field trips and get students to natural places that they might not be encouraged to go otherwise," Environmental Outreach Coordinator Jace Bylenga said. "It's important not to neglect lower-income kids with less opportunity."
The opportunity to be a role model for kids with a lower-income background is important for Meucci. The schools that participate in Earthbound have high rates of reduced or free lunches.
"We want to instill in them an environmental ethic so that they can become stewards of the earth," Bylenga said.
Through the program, Bylenga tries to emphasize reducing and reusing over recycling.
"While recycling is important, one of my pet peeves is when people put out their recycling and it's 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Bylenga said.
Earthbound found a way to reuse items Spokane will not recycle and to earn money for their program.
Bylenga implemented an idea from his AmeriCorps Vista predecessor to create and sell recycled notebooks using waxed cardboard from cereal boxes.
There are two sizes that sell for $2 or $3 each. Bylenga is hoping to get the notebooks into the bookstore next year, but right now relies on large orders for events like an upcoming youth environmental conference.
"Before the grant the notebooks were our only source of profit and we were limited," Meucci said.
Even with limited resources, the volunteers focused on activities that would get the kids outside and could be incorporated into a game or contest.
They set up scavenger hunts to identify specific trees and leaves. Over Halloween, they had a contest to see which kid could create the best recycled costume.
The profits from the recycled notebook project also allow them to occasionally bring in community partners.
"The West Valley Outdoor Learning Center brought in owls to show the kids after we had spent time learning about them," Meucci said.
On the day the owls were brought in there was a turnout of 30 kids compared to the normal 10 or 20.
"The plan is to promote the great field trips that the grant will allow us to take," Bylenga said. "Then we can tell the kids if they want to go they should get involved in the program to learn about what we're going to see."
The grant money will also allow Earthbound to bring in John Traynor, an education professor, to help the volunteers develop lesson plans.
"You can't give kids these huge environmental concepts and expect them to understand them," Meucci said. "They need to be broken down and relatable to experiences."
Earthbound is primarily a student-run program and the lesson plans are developed by the volunteers in an hourlong brainstorming session held once a week.
"A lot of times I'll go to The Lands Council to get some local, current and relevant issues," Bylenga said. "Then the topics are brought back to students so they can decide how to apply them."
Students record the success of the lesson plan they teach each week by the responsiveness of the kids, but it is largely a trial-and-error process.
"Hopefully, John Traynor can help us sort through that," Bylenga said.
In addition to the hourlong group brainstorms, volunteers attend one two-hour session each week at the school where their group was assigned.
"It's about a four-hour commitment a week and students can use it to fulfill their service learning requirement," Bylenga said.
Earthbound is looking for more volunteers for spring semester. Bylenga wants at least five volunteers at each site before taking more kids into the program. "Students who volunteer don't need to have any specific knowledge about the environment," Meucci said. "The only thing required is a background check by the school district."