CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
11 NOVEMBER 2002
Building futures the outdoor way
Registered pharmacist Jawari Kasimu-Graham says "the great outdoors" is good medicine for children. Mr. Kasimu-Graham, a natural health enthusiast who lives in Northwest, believes the outdoors is the best environment and a "natural place" for children to learn about nature. So Mr. Kasimu-Graham, 56, founded the George Washington Carver Outdoor School in 1990 to help young people develop a rapport with nature and to help them better understand themselves and their relationship to the world around them. The citywide nonprofit school allows children to get outside and join in activities that foster respect for nature, such as hiking expeditions and camping trips.
"I use the kids as an excuse to go out and play," Mr. Kasimu-Graham says, his eyes lighting up as he laughs.
"The only requirements to join the George Washington Carver Outdoor School is that the child be interested in going outside to play. I want to go outside and play, and I want the same kindred spirit out there with me," he says. He only plays on the weekends, however. The father of four and grandfather of three stays busy as a pharmacy inspector for the D.C. Department of Health's Pharmacy Control Division from Monday through Friday.
The concept for the school took flight when Mr. Kasimu-Graham started taking nature walks with his son and schoolmates. Word spread quickly, and more and more students from different schools from around the city wanted to take part in the leisurely outings.
Soon, he was sponsoring trips to Prince William Forest Park in Virginia and Greenbelt National Park in Maryland — accessible and fun locations with camping facilities and tent sites, he says. The school has grown over the years from taking students on day trips to sponsoring year-round activities that include annual spring and summer camps, Mr. Kasimu-Graham says. The school also sponsors a variety of environmental programs for girls and boys ages 7 to 17.
Currently, the outdoor school — in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum — is leading environmental walks along the city's George Washington Carver Trail. "We chose Dr. George Washington Carver's name [to represent our school] because he was the consummate naturalist. He had an opportunity to have fortune and fame but chose instead to devote his life to the betterment of his people," Mr. Kasimu-Graham says. "We take the children out camping and hiking, and everyone has a good time because we engage the children in all facets of what we do," he says.
When the groups go camping, Mr. Kasimu-Graham and six volunteers — professionals and laypersons with more than 50 years of outdoor experience among them — explain to the youths about the importance of respecting self, others and nature. It is about teamwork, he says.
Students learn about nature and the seven universal principles made popular by Maulana Ron Karenga, who founded the Kwanzaa celebration based on these principles. Children are taught that these principles exist in nature and should be honored 365 days a year, he says. "For instance, the first principle we introduce might be 'self-determination.' So, we would try to find a bird's nest as an example of how self-determination exists in nature — how a baby bird is determined to fly — and show students how they can use the principle in their own lives," Mr. Kasimu-Graham says. "Or, we might use 'collective work and responsibility' and take the group to an ant hill and show them how the ants have different types of workers — to show how collectively they [the ants] are able to maintain the colony. Somebody has to be the worker, the thinker, but everyone has a role to play. We cover all seven principles and then ask them how they would use the concepts in their own lives," he says.
The principles are reinforced through songs based on the elements. Earth represents the body, water represents blood, the wind is our breath and fire is our energy, Mr. Kasimu-Graham says. "We sing so the children can make an association with nature. So, when we talk about pollution and topics focusing on environmental education — we say, if you don't want to pollute the Earth — don't pollute your body," he says.
To spread the word about neighborhood environmental stewardship, the George Washington Carver Outdoor School is helping other schools and community organizations set up Explorers and Pathfinders clubs, he says.
Auraum Bennuur Johnson, 11, a sixth-grader who attends A-T Seban Mesut, an independent school in Northwest, thoroughly enjoys the camping experience, but the good-natured youngster has formed some definite opinions about the environment, litter and the state of the Anacostia River since joining the school's Explorers program.
The Explorers program is a year-round after-school and weekend environmental program for elementary and middle school students. Pathfinders is another of the school's year-round programs. It is for high school students who have expressed an interest in the environment or natural sciences.
Auraum says he also has learned a thing or two about gardening and how plants coexist. The Explorers group meets on Thursday evenings and is led by director Cynthia Foy. Quite often, students go over to Fort Stevens garden in Northwest to tend their plot.
"I've learned how some plants need more [nutrients] than others. And some plants grow to the side and might need a little help standing up. At that point, we build stakes to help them. Weeds can sometimes look like vines and you think it's the plant, but it's not. And you've got to get the weeds out by the root or they will grow back," Auraum says.
Auraum says he enjoys the camaraderie within the Explorers group. The people make the difference. "Everyone is very nice, helpful and fun to be with. If you need some help, they are there to lend a hand. Another thing I've learned about the environment is that you must leave it the way you found it. You must respect life and not destroy trees and other plant life," he says.
It's all about exposure, says Mr. Kasimu-Graham, a certified environmental educator through the National Wildlife Federation. He wants children, especially those who live in the city, to develop an interest in the environmental sciences and environmental occupations. If a child's interest peaks early on, it could lead to a career in this field. "It's been documented that people of color are underrepresented in the environmental sciences. We want children to get scholarships. What we want to do is expose them to the environmental sciences, which could be a viable career down the line," he says.
"As important as the rain forest is to world ecology, our neighborhoods are our habitats. It's fine to talk about endangered species, but we do not want our children to become endangered species. If we don't expose children to a positive environment and positive role models, they could very well become the threatened species," he says.
Mr. Kasimu-Graham says the school receives funding from both private and public organizations — most notably the D.C. Continentals, a national black women's organization; the Student Conservation Association, based in Arlington; and the National Park Service. Mr. Kasimu-Graham says that even though the school charges little or nothing for the children to participate in the various programs, parents are asked to participate in the "Your Can, Can," campaign. Canned goods are collected and donated to a local food bank.
"The whole idea is hunger is not just something that happens on Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's year-round and affects so many people on a daily basis. We encourage the children to always give back," he says.
In parting, Mr. Kasimu-Graham always says: "Happy trails."
For further information about the school, go to its Web site at www.gwcods.org
By Denise Barnes
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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