Photo: YMCA Columbus Ohio

How a YMCA Outreach Program Is Helping Open the Outdoors

Every child deserves an outdoor adventure.

That’s the simple, yet powerful idea behind Outdoor Inclusive Adventures, the annual outdoor event organized by the YMCA of Central Ohio’s Early Childhood Resource Network+ (ECRN+)

The organization’s recent Outdoor Inclusive Adventures event, held in September at Prairie Oaks Metro Park, just west of Columbus, attracted hundreds of children, teens and young adults, including many with special health care needs and disabilities. 

The event’s aim was to serve the network’s core mission of working with families who are asset-limited and living paycheck to paycheck, says Samantha Stewart, executive director of ECRN+ and an avid outdoor enthusiast. That, she adds, goes for “any family, to stabilize their housing situation and help kids be academically successful.”

To achieve those outcomes, the network provides a wide variety of programs. “We started with a focus on early childhood and preschoolers and children with disabilities and special needs and evolved from there,” said Stewart, noting how the ECRN+ was created as a standalone nonprofit, later joining with the YMCA of Central Ohio. And though its array of services range broadly—everything from early intervention and assessments, speech-therapy and other developmental screenings for preschoolers, to adaptive equipment loans and even housing assistance as well as sports programs—creating a connection to nature remains a tenet of the network.

The annual Outdoor Inclusive Adventures event provides an opportunity for the children and teens who participate in ECRN+ programs (most of whom live in densely populated urban environments) to experience the great outdoors in the safe setting of a Columbus and Franklin County Metro Park, which they may not have visited before—or even known existed. “Most of our work is home-based,” Stewart said, noting the benefit of the OIA event as a change-of-pace, open-air activity, especially for children and teens with disabilities.

Photo: YMCA Columbus Ohio

About two dozen employee guides from Public Lands’ Polaris, Ohio store volunteered at this fall’s Outdoor Inclusive Adventures event.  

The experience offered immediate rewards that stuck with the store’s guides, said Jennifer Hamad, Assistant Store Manager of Experiences. “We were so happy to give our time and experience,” she said, noting the staff’s help with the kayaking offered as well as lessons teaching kids to cast fly rods and make nature crafts—all done with the end goal of establishing familiarity with the outdoors and breaking down barriers of entry. “Accessibility to the outdoors is one of our core beliefs.”

Hamad brought her daughter, Ashley, 15, and they volunteered at the nature craft and interactive display, which included face painting and temporary tattoos. The other activities, like kayaking and canoeing, fishing, hiking, and lawn games, each had adaptive opportunities to allow those with special health care needs and disabilities to participate. There was also a DJ, plus farming equipment demonstrations, and plenty of food. 

“It was awesome,” Stewart said of the network’s fifth OIA event, noting her appreciation of Public Lands in answering their call for volunteers after it heard about the network through Columbus Gives Back (a nonprofit that connects potential volunteers with other local nonprofits). 

As for the next Outdoor Inclusive Adventures, Stewart said a date has not yet been finalized, but it will be a Sunday in September 2022. She also said that the ECRN+ team and volunteers will keep exploring opportunities for new events like the popular “creeking” activity recently added. “I hadn’t heard about it until a couple years ago, from the naturalists at [Columbus and Franklin County] Metro Parks,” said Stewart, describing the outing that traces creek beds looking for tadpoles and frogs and minnows. “It was so much fun and there was a real feeling of community.”

Volunteering and Giving

Anyone interested in volunteering at the next ECRN+ Outdoor Inclusive Adventures can email Stewart (sstewart@ymcacolumbus.org) or contact columbusgivesback.org, which fosters connections between organizations and potential volunteers.

Visit ymcacolumbus.org for more information on ECRN+ and classy.org to make a donation to the organization’s Give Her Hope campaign to help men, women and children experiencing homelessness.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.