Laura and Shawn Sears give inner-city kids an educational camp experience

On northern California's spectacular coast a free camp for low-income children provides hands-on science education and team building – along with 'nonstop fun.'

Tony Avelar/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Laura and Shawn Sears founded Vida Verde to give groups of students three days of exposure to and hands-on experience in the outdoors.

When Laura and Shawn Sears arrived in the Mississippi Delta some 13 years ago, they had no idea how the schoolchildren they would teach for the next two years would change the course of their lives.

Leaving college with liberal arts degrees – his in psychology, hers in geology – Shawn and Laura applied to Teach for America and were eventually placed to teach in one of the poorest regions in the country.

Today, celebrating 14 years together (getting married along the way in 2004), they've seen the seeds sown during their experiences in Mississippi grow to fruition in the founding of Vida Verde Nature Education, a nonprofit outdoor education camp they've now run for 11 years.

Located on northern California's spectacular coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, this free camp for children from low-income families has served more than 7,000 kids from the inner cities of Oakland, East Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Jose.

"We help them let go of much of the negativity they often carry," Shawn says. "It's nonstop fun, and they get to just be kids for a few days. Three days later, they're transformed."

One "huge fan" of Vida Verde is Preston Smith, a San Jose, Calif., educator. He is cofounder and president of Rocketship Education, which is launching its seventh charter school for Grades K through 5 dedicated to closing the achievement gap for inner-city students.

"What these kids learn at [Vida Verde] camp are concepts they use for the whole year," he says. "This early experience gives them exposure to nature, to hands-on science, and they learn real teamwork."

Although they didn't know it at the time, Laura's and Shawn's early experiences were preparing them to found Vida Verde. Laura grew up in a middle-class family in western Kentucky and spent her summers at a camp in North Carolina learning survival skills, along with leadership and team building. She worked as a camp counselor and as a volunteer with special needs children.

Shawn also grew up in a middle-class family and spent his youth coaching kids in swimming, backpacking in Glacier National Park, and canoeing at his family's summer cabin in northern Minnesota. Like Laura, he never came into contact with his underprivileged peers.

After graduating from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Laura joined Shawn, who had already been accepted in the Teach for America program, each signing a two-year commitment to teach in an inner-city classroom. She was placed in Helena, Ark., just across the river from Marks, Miss., where Shawn was assigned.

Those two years in the Mississippi Delta changed both of them. "For the first time, we were up close and personal to one of the poorest regions in the US," Laura says. "And we fell in love with our kids. We knew we could never turn our backs on their needs, which were going unfulfilled."

"When you don't know poor people personally," Laura says, "you can generalize why families are poor. But we got to know our students and the community. We believe that each kid deserves a chance."

Despite wanting the best for their children, Shawn says, low-income parents may have little money to spend on education. They may not have a car, and may have had no success with and little trust in the education system. They may need to work weekend or evening jobs. They often can't provide their children with a broad education outside of school.

"Kids want to succeed and do well," Shawn says, "no matter their income. Learning that every child can improve and ultimately succeed changed us."

Laura and Shawn began taking their students on field trips. Suddenly, subjects like science and history became more relevant.

"For the first time," Shawn says, "these kids loved learning, and that set them up for wanting to learn more new things when they returned to the classroom."

On those early field trips, which Laura and Shawn paid for themselves, the students saw the Mississippi River for the first time, even though they had lived their whole lives less than 20 miles away from it. For some, it was the first time they'd seen a swimming pool. In just one week, which included three days of canoeing and camping, Laura says, the couple saw more growth in their students than during an entire school year. And they developed a powerful relationship with the kids.

"No wonder these kids so often perform poorly on standardized tests," Shawn says. "They have no context. But the hands-on learning gets them excited and develops social growth and perspective."

After their stint with Teach for America, the Searses knew they wanted to dedicate their lives to working with underprivileged kids.

After moving to northern California, they discovered not only a large, affluent population, but also a growing strata of low-income communities with children who have the same needs as the students they'd taught earlier. So, when they were offered the use of a beautiful ranch, Laura and Shawn founded Vida Verde.

Three days turned out to be the ideal length for a trip, and Vida Verde now operates exclusively on that schedule, taking entire classes camping, usually about 30 students at a time.

At Vida Verde, Laura and Shawn pay careful attention to the way they help children learn, says Stanford University professor Nicole Ardoin, who teaches environmental education. Their teaching is hands-on, not lectures, Dr. Ardoin says. "This approach helps kids make the connection that the environment isn't separate and 'out there,' but that they're a part of it," she says.

Research shows that youths who are brought into close contact with nature, especially low-income urban children, receive many health and psychological benefits. "Vida Verde changes how these kids see nature and how to use our resources," Ardoin says. Studies show that after a camp experience, students go back to the classroom and improve test scores. They also exhibit better behavior, attendance, and team-building skills.

Laura has a more personal view of what happens at Vida Verde. "Camp is magic," she says. Most of the students are away from home for the first time, and they arrive with a lot of fears of the unknown, she says. They have the survival skills they need for their urban environment, but here everything is different. "They need reassurance that they won't run into anacondas or gorillas or bears," she says.

On the first night the group goes on a hike without flashlights, and they sleep in native American tepees. Vida Verde has no locked doors, and the food comes from the garden. The children even learn to milk a goat. Every child takes responsibility helping others, and they pitch in making meals and cleaning up.

When the students return to the classroom their teachers make use of the Vida Verde experience. When one teacher was explaining the San Andreas Fault, the class looked on a map to see how far Vida Verde was from the fault line. In creative writing classes, kids can draw on their stimulating camp experiences.

The success of Vida Verde, the Searses say, shows that individuals can find ways to serve others without needing a lot of money or advanced academic degrees. "Everyone can do something," Laura says.

Adds Shawn: "Right from the start, people provided pro bono accounting services or fixed our vehicles for free. And today, Vida Verde still receives everything, including all of its funding, from donors and community people who develop relationships with us."

For the first two years of Vida Verde, Laura and Shawn worked alone. But they've attracted helpers: A staff of nine now serves 700 children each year.

"We want to help kids have incredible first-time experiences in the outdoors," Shawn says. "We've based Vida Verde on two core concepts: 'There are no bad kids' and 'Camp has to be fun.' "

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