Spotlight – LOOP NOLAMay 1, 2021Teaching Life Skills in the Great Outdoors Jon Skvarka - Executive DirectorLOOP NOLA was born of Dan Forman’s belief in the power of positive outdoor experiences for disadvantaged youth, particularly those from the inner city without access to green space. He found his mission in 1997 when he began taking local kids canoeing as a NORD program offshoot. LOOP has undergone various incarnations, first as a state-funded youth program providing free semester-length environmental science lessons in tandem with outdoor ventures. After budget cuts, LOOP reformed as a non-profit in 2015, and executive director Jonathan Skvarka was hired. Skvarka began rebuilding LOOP NOLA, partnering with charter public schools to create programs and provide field trips for students from low-income families, ages 6 to 19 years, that give them a sense of belonging in the outdoors. Custom STEM and team building programs also are developed for other youth nonprofits (like YEP) that work with the same demographics. Skvarka describes how life changing outdoor experiences can be for children and youth: “We try to get these students out at least once a year. These are minority kids....Getting outdoors sounds simple to most of us, but these kids haven’t been in a forest. It’s scary on the one hand, but invigorating and inspiring, and allows them to be confident and comfortable outdoors.” Wide Ranging Benefits The benefits of being in nature and around wildlife are wide ranging, from mental and physical health to helping develop social-emotional skills. Participants learn to work together as teams, which builds resilience and teaches them to work through interpersonal conflicts. Each child’s immediate family also benefits; the kids are encouraged to revisit City Park and state parks with their relatives and share with them what they’ve learned. Says Skvarka, “Hiking in City Park isn't typically a family activity for most of our participants. We give the kids a comfort level and let them know they and their families belong and it (the park) is for them, not just affluent families.” Programs The LOOP NOLA team works from a homebase in City Park, where their unique City Park Challenge Course (multi-course ropes challenge) also is located. Other key components are their after-school enrichment programs. Though numbers were curtailed this past year by COVID restrictions, the Outdoor Adventure Club is still active. The current 10-15 high school members meet weekly with their adult mentor(s) in City Park and also one Saturday/month for an outdoor challenge, such as floating down the Bogue Chitto River or mountain biking in Baton Rouge. These adventures, says Skvarka, are “a challenge and they build confidence (in themselves) and the mastery and skills necessary at different levels to accomplish the activities.” Other popular programming includes LOOP’s own summer camp, Camp LOOP Garou, where campers canoe, fish, hike, and more in City Park and at Joe W. Brown Memorial Park in New Orleans East thanks to Laureus USA. The group also partners with local summer camps to provide their outdoor and field trip components, including the JCC, KidCAM, and Grow Dat Youth Farm. Skvarka hopes to expand programming and enrollments as COVID restrictions are lifted, including a possible Thanksgiving week camp. LOOP NOLA holds eco-friendly Camping 101 sessions throughout the year, and also provides customized events for families and groups, including canoeing birthday parties. And the ropes course challenge with its multiple high and low elements has hosted many company team building groups, including Shell. For more information, see loopnola.org. Trevor Wisdom is a mom and native New Orleanian, and managing editor of Nola Family.