The creative energy of youth, the serenity of nature, and the lessons of history are a winning combination for me. All three were present in this video from the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, where I enjoyed an opportunity to roll up my sleeves alongside volunteers, young and old, to help plant rose bushes named for Coretta Scott King in the peace garden.
This visit helped launch our 50 Cities Initiative — an ambitious effort by the Department of the Interior's bureaus to work alongside cities, public land managers, and non-profit organizations like the YMCA, the National League of Cities, and local youth conservation corps, to engage young people in nature from city parks to national parks and all points in between.
Several senior Interior colleagues and I fanned out across the country, announcing this public/private partnership in New York City, Miami, Boston, St. Louis, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Denver, and Atlanta. Also joining in this initial effort will be Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In each place, we were joined by local leaders, nonprofit partners, and YMCA executives to hold community service projects and announce a generous $5 million donation from the American Express Foundation.
Much of the funding will support coordinator positions that will work with public land management agencies, schools, and other organizations that serve youth to enlist and support 1 million volunteers on public lands annually — nearly tripling the current number. The support will also facilitate opportunities for tens of millions of children to enjoy parks and programs that connect them to nature, in support of the "Every Kid in a Park" program launched by President Obama in Chicago last month.
By the end of 2015, 25 cities will have enthusiastically joined this effort, with the remaining 25 to be named in 2016. This is all part of the Department of the Interior's youth initiative to engage the next generation of outdoor stewards and inspire millions of our nation's youth to play, learn, serve, and work in the great outdoors.
These events reinforced the importance of our mission to help young people across the country have life-changing experiences in nature — experiences like those of Jane Chan, who joined us in New York, and shared stories of nature walks in Brooklyn with her grandmother collecting ginkgo nuts that had fallen from the trees. These memories made a lasting impression that led her to get more involved in outdoor programs. After volunteering with the Student Conservation Association, she was inspired to become an environmental steward and is getting her masters from Columbia University’s climate program. Experiences in nature and community service are not only fun, they change lives!
In New York City’s Battery Park outside Castle Clinton National Monument, Jane and I worked alongside American Express Foundation president President Timothy J. McClimon, YMCA of the USA President Emeritus Neil Nicoll, and Commissioner of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department Mitchell Silver, plus volunteers from American Express and staff from the Battery Conservancy, pruning bushes and native plants in time for new spring growth.
In Miami, joined by Mayor Tomás Regalado, I enjoyed meeting a group of students who were working in the Everglades on "alternative spring break" and learning from National Park rangers how to dissect an invasive lionfish (alongside some very engaged children and one cabinet secretary!).
In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed joined me at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. As a recent grandmother, I know that we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Like Jane’s grandmother, I hope to inspire my grandchildren to develop lifelong connections to nature by getting them outside to play, learn, serve, and work in the great outdoors.
I also know that we can’t do this alone and I am thankful for enlightened companies like American Express, powerful nonprofit partners like the YMCA, and committed local elected officials who are all working together as stewards of the planet for children in communities across the country.
To learn more about our efforts, visit http://www.doi.gov/youth.