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Into the Wild

Tell someone you have a wild child on your hands, and they may look at you with concern. But middle school teacher Kelli Bivins aims to change that first impression. With volunteer help from Athens native Evan McGown, Bivins, an ESOL teacher at W.R. Coile Middle School, has organized a group of “wild” kids to take part in a program designed to teach them about the outdoors. Once a month for the past nine months, students from Fowler Drive Elementary, Coile Middle and Cedar Shoals—all with decent grades but also susceptible to the lure of gangs—have been meeting behind an abandoned house on Old Commerce Road just north of Athens.

There, they have learned about invasive plants and gotten a closer look at bugs as they make their way toward Sandy Creek. On a recent HandsOn Northeast Georgia work day, the students, along with some parents and other volunteers, forged a path to an area they cleared for a campsite, hauling out trash on the way and creating a destination to cook tamales over an open fire and share stories.

“We’re near Sandy Creek, and a lot of the kids already explore and fish out here,” said McGown as he and about 15 children worked to clear brush at their new campsite. Many of the students are first-generation [American], and they have a lot of first-hand experience. Some of them even went through the desert. A lot of them have a skill set that a lot of Americans are trying to learn.”

The hope of Bivins and McGown is that by connecting with the natural world around their neighborhoods and learning wilderness skills, the students will find a greater purpose than the temptations of crime and gangs. McGown, who ran a wilderness survival camp for troubled kids out west for several years, moved back to Athens to start his own camp, the Institute for Wild Intelligence. He approached Bivins about starting a program for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to go to the camp. Bivins, who already had been trying to find ways to connect her students—mainly black and Latino kids who often don’t get along with each other—with a more positive future, jumped at the opportunity.

“These are kids who are leaders, but they were leaning to gangs,” she said. She recalled the HandsOn Northeast Georgia work day event, which brought about 45 kids from the surrounding neighborhoods. “We just didn’t want it to end… The kind of changes I’m looking for [are in] race relations—black and brown—and they were starting to get along, where before they hated each other’s guts.”

The property on which the students meet is owned by Dunta Robinson, an Athens native who now plays cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons. He purchased the property several years ago in order to build a community center and playing fields. That complex is still in the planning stages, but in the meantime, he’s given the kids his blessing to romp in the woods.

On a recent Saturday, the students’ goal was to clear a new path as far as Sandy Creek and build a fire pit in a clearing nearby. By lunchtime, they had successfully removed piles of garbage that had been dumped at the property over the years and were learning about the types of trees that could be cut down for firewood. The students ranged in age from kindergarten to high school, all working together for the common goal of creating a special place to hang out.

“We’re learning how to cooperate with other people, how to respect the trees,” said Aaliyah Smith, 13, as she and some friends, both Latino and African American, worked on chopping up a thin, invasive tree at their new campsite.

McGown said the program is dedicated to creating “memorable moments” that are less about the information imparted to the students and more about the connections they make with nature. As a result, kids who may have been looking to gang life are turning in another direction, embracing a future with positive energy.

“Kids need to play in nature,” McGown added, noting the rise in childhood issues such as attention deficit disorder in correlation with increased time devoted to video games and other similar activities. “It’s really a health issue. As we become more technology-based, kids are spending seven hours a day in front of a screen… Pretty much every kid seems designed to want to play outside. When they’re outside, their eyes open wide and they’re curious. And if it’s done the right way—if it’s about love—it seems a really natural thing.”