Friday, February 24, 2012

Mission: Outdoors

This past weekend, Friday the 17th through Sunday the 19th, I had the privilege of attending a Sierra Club listening session for their program to engage military families in outdoor activities. I attended as a representative of the National Park Service and, specifically, the Pacific West Region's volunteer program. The goal was to identify barriers in working with veterans and to develop strategies for overcoming them.

We had 20 people in attendance, at Islandwood, a residential environmental education facility on Bainbridge Island -- 5 from Sierra Club, 14 from various military connections, and me. The military attendees included active military from Joint Base Lewis McChord, and veterans who are now working with other veterans in some capacity like the VA or community-based organizations. The leader of the Sierra Club effort was Stacy Bare, a veteran who now works to get other veterans connected to outdoor programs through the Sierra Club, and who has a great personal story of finding healing and purpose through his own experiences hiking and climbing. Another of the Sierra Club people was an excellent facilitator who walked us through discussion topics like what barriers exist in working with military veterans and how to overcome them. And there was a lot of social interaction built in, too, which created a great comradery in the group. I made some friends, and I have some great contacts for making further connections with local military.

Sierra Club is also tentatively planning a weekend trip for veterans to Mystic Lake here in Mount Rainier National Park this summer, as one of the outcomes of our meeting.

The meeting was interesting for me, too, because a lot of the issues of engaging with the military apply in similar ways to outreach efforts in other communities as well, such as under-represented ethnic and economic groups.

Some key insights:
  • Involve veterans in the outreach to veterans. Nothing breaks down barriers like having someone there who shares your experience.
  • Consider mentorships. Don't just make the connection and then forget about it; actively check in on people.
  • Plan a positive first experience that sets a welcoming tone.
  • Establish a relationship with "two-way value." Don't just provide a service, engage the veterans in contributing as well.
  • Find common ground and a common sense of purpose. This can help break down perceived barriers between groups (e.g. liberal tree huggers vs conservative gun nuts) and replace them with a common cause (e.g. working together to protect the natural places we both value).
  • Create networks with other places, so that as military people move from place to place, they are welcomed in their new locations too.
  • Be realistic about what you're offering. "We're not a therapy organization," Stacy said of the Sierra Club -- but they can offer outings in a therapeutic wilderness setting.
  • Be sensitive to the issues some veterans face. Physical and psychological traumas like traumatic brain injury and PTSD can create challenges. At the same time, recognize than many vets have no such issues, and those that do are committed to overcoming them.
  • Be mission oriented. That's what attracts many people to the military, and also to groups like Sierra Club (and NPS). Military people tend to relish a goal-oriented mission and challenge.
The Sierra Club's military outreach programs are just one aspect of a groundswell of such programs that are starting up all over the country as veterans return from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They go by all kinds of names -- Post to Parks, Operation Warfighter, Operation Purple, Wounded Warriors, Mission: Outdoors, Veterans Job Corps, and more -- but they have in common a goal of working with veterans in positive ways. The National Park Service has already been identified as a key partner in these efforts, and based on my experience this weekend at Islandwood, I believe that the Sierra Club will, in turn, be a very productive partner for us in accomplishing these goals.

Read more on the Sierra Club's military outreach blog page.

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