Finding Hope in the Outdoors
Before he experienced the outdoors, Leon McNeil was a kid who didn’t have a sense of hope.
“The outdoors gave me that hope, showed me the world is not all asphalt and craziness,” he says.
As middle school teachers, he and his wife, Leticia, see a lot of kids with that same hopelessness, so they decided to give them the outdoors, too.
In 1995, they founded City Kids Adventures in San Antonio to introduce city youth to a wide variety of outdoor recreation. Their first outing took 76 kids camping in Port Aransas. Now Leon, Leticia and their 21-year-old son Lee Charles are out with kids almost every weekend, serving about 150 youth each year.
“Getting kids out on the weekend gives them enough to push through the week,” Leon says. “Inner-city kids see a lot of negative aspects of life and start to think that’s what life is. They have nothing to compare it to, which makes it hard to make decisions about things that matter.”
“We have a passion for teaching,” Leticia says, “and this gives us an opportunity to teach outside the classroom. Kids see that learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom. It takes place everywhere you go.”
Lee Charles believes that the program is built on longevity and relationships.
“Now that you’ve gone through all these experiences, what are you giving back? It’s about helping out the next person,” he says.
Most participants start City Kids Adventures in middle school, and the organization continues to mentor them through high school, college and beyond. Older members return as guides and mentors.
“The TPWD motto, ‘Life’s Better Outside’ — that’s the truest thing since sliced bread,” Leon says. “A lot of problems we see in the inner city is because we have removed the natural world.”
He shares a line that Lee Charles recently wrote: “In the wake of a pandemic and the world’s mounting problems, we must stay steadfast in uniting our next generation in positive experiences that generate a concept of virtuous success.”
“That sums up what we’re trying to do, stay steadfast to the next generation,” Leon says. “We can get bogged down in the problems in the world, but we have to keep kids united and moving forward. We can’t let them down.”
The nonprofit (CityKidsAdventures.org) relies on donations and volunteers. Teachers, parents and community advocates refer students, and the group evaluates kids for the program, based in part on the capacity for long-term commitment and their home and community environment.
Maegan Lanham | TPWD
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