When outdoor enthusiasts Chase and Hillary Lyle moved to Swatara Township last year after finishing college, one of the first things the newlyweds did was search online for hiking and youth volunteer opportunities in the area.
What they found was Harrisburg Inspiring Connections Outdoors, a volunteer organization dedicated to giving urban youth opportunities to experience the great outdoors. It was a perfect match for the Lyles, who began volunteering for the group last autumn.
“I’ve always liked being outdoors and working with kids,” said Chase, a Jefferson County native. “I tutored while I was growing up. My brother is 10 years younger than me, so I worked with his team.”
Hillary, a native of rural Clearfield County, also loves the outdoors. She camped with her family while growing up and began hiking in college, she said.
Today, the Lyles lead groups of sixth- and seventh-graders from the Harrisburg School District’s Marshall Math Science Academy on outdoor excursions that most of the young people have never before experienced. Hot city confines are left far behind as the youngsters eagerly experience hiking, camping, swimming, kayaking, canoeing and orienteering—a sport that hones navigational skills. They’ve even planted trees and made holiday wreaths from fresh boughs.
“I don’t know who gets more out of it, us or them,” Chase reflected. “I love things like just seeing them see the ocean for the first time and to see crabs. (Our trips) are the best day of the month for them sometimes.”
Harrisburg ICO, formerly known as Harrisburg Inner City Outings, was formed in 1996 by a group of five Sierra Club Pennsylvania members “who wanted to share their love of nature and the outdoors with youth,” Hillary explained. The all-volunteer group serves around 150 participants each year with day and weekend trips to Hawk Mountain, the Appalachian Trail, Susquehanna River, Middle Creek and various state parks.
“The kids learn practical skills,” Hillary said. “They eat and cook healthy meals. They also learn about leadership and meeting new people.”
Of course, the kids have fun, too. They’re given a balance of unstructured time on every outing for uncomplicated pursuits, such as skipping rocks on water, searching for frogs and turtles, or even just rock hopping.
Marshall students are selected for the program on the basis of their grades and conduct. Marshall teachers serve as trained agency representatives for the program.
Former youth participant Micaela Zawadski said a favorite of her many HICO trips was visiting the Juniata River in rural Pennsylvania.
“I’ve always been in love with the water,” said Zawadski, who emigrated from Paraguay with her family in 2003. “I just really enjoyed seeing nature. I was from South America, so I was used to being outside. Plus, all the group leaders were so caring to us.”
Zawadski enjoyed her HICO experiences so much as a seventh- and eighth-grader at Marshall Academy, she formed a similar group as a ninth-grader at Harrisburg High School’s SciTech campus. Unfortunately, the group disbanded four years later when Zawadski graduated.
“It left with me,” she noted.
Today, however, Zawadski, now 23, is back with HICO as a youth leader after graduating in May from Geneva College with a degree in environmental engineering.
“I think it’s a really neat experience, and I want to give back what was given to me,” she said. “I think it makes a really big impact on kids.”
Hillary Lyle said she likes “just seeing the real impact we have on these kids. We provide them with a cultural exchange. They go to new places and meet people they’d never met before. They develop leadership skills and communication skills.”
Chase Lyle said he likes to see the looks on the kids’ faces when they accomplish something.
“They were so proud when they made the wreaths and planted trees,” he said. “It’s nice to see them so proud of something they’ve done and see it make a positive impact on them.”
The HICO program organizes and leads outdoor trips at no cost to youth participants. Donations, grant writing and local fundraising pay for activities.
“HICO has always done amazing things for Harrisburg very quietly,” said Hillary Lyle, now HICO’s fundraising chair. “We have a few new volunteers this year, and we want to get the word out about our organization.”
For information about donating or volunteering for Harrisburg Inspiring Connections Outdoors, visit www.harrisburgico.org.
Author: Phyllis Zimmerman