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Adventure Time

The McNeils pay it forward by connecting city kids to outdoor activities.

By Lydia Saldaña

On a beautiful spring morning in early May, the banks of the Guadalupe River at Bergheim Campground near Boerne are busy with folks preparing for a paddling trip. A group of 18 kids from San Antonio are finishing up breakfast and getting ready to go. Kayaks are lifted off a trailer, life vests are distributed, and the kids gather for a safety briefing.

The focus of their attention is Leon McNeil, a middle school teacher/coach from San Antonio who also leads City Kids Adventures, a nonprofit that mentors city kids through outdoor adventures.

While Leon may be the face of the organization, his wife, Leticia, works quietly behind the scenes. Leon briefs the kids, and Leticia prepares to break camp. Their 18-year-old son, Lee Charles, helps out as well, shepherding kids, gathering gear and making sure everything’s ready for the downstream adventure.

Before the kids pair off in kayaks, Leon goes through some safety tips and lets the kids know what to expect. While most have been in a kayak before, none of them have ever experienced a free-flowing river.

group

Leon McNeil, kneeling next to wife Leticia, is an ambassador for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation's "We Will Not Be Tamed" campaign.


Exposing kids to new experiences in the outdoors is the modus operandi of City Kids Adventures. The program got its start in 1995 at Cooper Middle School in San Antonio. The school is in the central part of the city; students often struggled to succeed. Two young teachers, Leon McNeil and Leticia Martinez, brainstormed an idea to involve students in outdoor activities to enhance their lives and help them achieve academic success.

“Leticia was passionate about the outdoors,” Leon says, “and we got this crazy idea to show these kids another way of life.”

Their shared passion for the outdoors and ultimately each other led to marriage and the birth of their son.

Fueled by private donations, the program continues to evolve and is now deeply ingrained in the family’s life.

“I’ve been in the program since I was born,” Lee Charles attests, laughing.

Today’s outing is one of dozens the McNeils will lead over the course of the year. From March through October, they spend virtually every weekend and the entire summer taking kids on outdoor adventures.

fishing

City Kids Adventures participants try their hand at fishing.


“City Kids Adventures is supported 100 percent by individuals, businesses and private landowners who graciously allow us to access their ranches,” Leon says. “The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is also a big supporter — TPWD’s Community Outdoor Outreach Program really put us on the map. Those funds allowed us to purchase critically needed equipment.”

A lot of that TPWD-funded equipment was put to use that day on the river. From the camping tents and trailer to some of the kayaks, the grant program has provided many of the tools that City Kids Adventures needs to offer quality experiences.

Partnerships are also key to the program’s success. Volunteers from the San Antonio chapter of Stewards of the Wild helped organize the trip and joined the flotilla of newbie river runners to provide assistance. Stewards of the Wild is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s young professionals organization, with chapters across the state. (TPWF is the nonprofit funding partner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.)

“Encouraging the next generation of conservationists is what Stewards of the Wild is all about,” says Chris Collis, co-chair of the San Antonio chapter. “The City Kids Adventures program takes it a step further. These kids are going to help keep it wild.”

San Antonio chapter co-chair John Saunders proposed the idea of the river trip after inviting City Kids Adventures to hunt on his ranch.

“Leon is really amazing — he coaches at San Antonio Academy, positively impacting student athletes, including my son,” Saunders says. “He also runs a team of quail dogs all through quail season. On top of that, he pretty much donates his life to City Kids Adventures. He inspires me. He inspires a lot of people. He certainly inspires these kids.”

Under the watchful eye of the McNeils and the volunteer Stewards, the kids launch their kayaks into the cool waters of the Guadalupe and make their way downstream.

There are several rapids along the way, challenging enough that several boats overturn, spilling their gleeful occupants into the river.

kayak

Group leader Leon McNeil gets a little help navigating his kayak over some falls on the Guadalupe River.


“It’s Comedy Central sometimes,” says Lee Charles, who has been kayaking for 10 years and who helped the younger kids navigate the rough spots. “We do all we can to keep them in the boat, but sometimes the river wins. It’s fun helping them out, or watching them fall. It’s all part of the experience.”

Teaching the kids to be confident and calm when things go wrong is one of the life lessons to be learned here. Gaining the confidence to try new things is another.

“A lot of these kids have a lot of negativity in their lives,” says Leticia. “In their world, it’s hard for them to accomplish things in their own neighborhoods. So, when they do something like this, it’s very empowering.”

The City Kids Adventures motto is “Hard work has many rewards.” All of the kids who participate in the program have to earn their way by keeping their grades up and doing service work. Those participating today make sure to leave the campsite better than they found it and pick up litter as they paddle down the river.

Leon learned his lesson about hard work in high school. He grew up in an inner-city neighborhood in San Antonio, and his home life was troubled. When his fractured family disintegrated, one of his high school coaches took him in, feeding him, clothing him and helping him understand that hard work would help him reach his goals. A talented athlete, he was awarded a football scholarship to Abilene Christian University. A camping trip with his teammates was his first outdoor experience, and it turned out to be life-changing.

“City Kids Adventures is our way, as a family, of giving back,” Leon says. “It has become a calling for us.”

dog

McNeil's son Lee Charles follows a dog out of the brush on a hog hunt organized by the nonprofit group.


For Lee Charles, the giving goes both ways.

“We welcome all of these kids into our family,” he says. “It’s that family bond that many of these kids don’t have. It brings it all home. And our family is closer because of it.”

Janai Adams has been part of the program since eighth grade.

“I think of Leon and Leticia as my second parents,” the 16-year-old confides. “I can go to them for pretty much anything. There is a reason I am here, and there is a reason they are here. They are a big part of my life.”

For Leon, it all comes back to family.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today without my family,” he says. “For them to share our love and blessings with other kids is why it works. It’s a purpose-driven life for me, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

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