July 27, 2012


Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Cool, clear water splashed in every direction as the youngsters involved in the Fresh Air Family’s Gross Out Camp cavorted in the shallow waters of Turkey Creek Nature Preserve.

The camp is part of the Fresh Air Family’s initiative to connect today’s generation of children and families to the outdoors in the manner that previous generations enjoyed. Verna Gates, who founded Fresh Air Family in Birmingham in 2006, realized that if kids were allowed to sit in front of TVs or computer screens that society’s connection to the outdoors would soon become tenuous at best.

“I was president of the (Birmingham) Wildflower Society for several years, and it dawned on me that I was the youngest member, and I’m not going to tell you my age,” Gates said. “I knew this was not a good thing. I thought, ‘We’ve got to get children and families back outside.’

“We had all these wonderful, free things to do outside, and everybody who participated was getting older and older. I thought that somehow we had to reverse this trend.”

Fortunately, my generation spent a great deal of time outdoors. When I was growing up, we were outside during every possible daylight hour. During the summer, I left the house after breakfast and many days didn’t get back home until supper. The rest of the day was spent exploring the outdoors, a cherished gift that many people from the current generation does not understand.

“The outdoors is the natural habitat for children,” Gates said. “I’m shocked at the number of kids who have never played in a creek like these children are doing today. I decided we’ve got to do something to get these kids outside. When I started Fresh Air Family, I really was shocked at the need.”

The organization’s membership skyrocketed to 10,000 members in two years. More than 11,000 people participated in Fresh Air Family (www.freshairfamily.org) programs last year. The number of Gross Out Camp events has been increased to four per summer, many of which are held on Forever Wild Land Trust property.

“We thought about calling it Science and Math Camp, but how many kids do you know that would go for that,” Gates said of Gross Out Camp. “The kids love cutting things up, finding tadpoles and such. We offer everything from canoeing, caving, fishing, hiking, birding, fossil hunting, star gazing and so on. Everything we can think of to do outside, we try to do. We invite families out. We feel like we’re the introductory place. You can come and see if you like birding. You can come and see if you like fossil hunting. We just want the families to get started.

“We missed the last generation that are the parents of these children. So many parents, especially single women, are afraid to get out by themselves. But we provide a safe atmosphere where our staff is trained in first aid. We give them a specific agenda about where we’re going and what we’re doing. Along the way, we’re going to look for turtles or birds or flowering plants or rocks or fossils or whatever. We’re providing a safe place where families can go and enjoy nature and learn something.”

Despite its popularity, only about 100 kids get to attend Gross Out Camp throughout the summer because of the resources it takes to hold the camp. The effort is more than worth it, according to Gates.

“We seem to think that kids have gotten more sophisticated,” she said. “I’m here to tell you that is not true. I’ve had to drag kids out of creek beds because it was getting dark. They were having the times of their lives. They don’t have this kind of freedom. This is like a magic camp where you’re outside and you explore the world you live in. I’m a great believer in science. Science is where you learn to think. It’s all about solving problems. They learn how to make decisions that will serve them later in life.”

One of the more popular activities at Gross Out Camp is when the kids mix glue, pieces of foam and food coloring to make fake vomit, which then becomes part of a joke when they take it home in their lunchboxes to unsuspecting family members.

“These kids are doing heavy duty science and have no clue,” Gates said. “I love to hear the words ‘polymer’ and ‘barf’ used in the same sentence. They just think they’re having fun. Learning done well is one of the most fun things you can do. When we say, ‘Hey, let’s go find some tadpoles’ or ‘let’s make some fake vomit,’ they don’t realize it’s science. They just think it’s cool and funny. It’s been proven that science and exercise can make you smarter.”

One of Fresh Air Family’s most popular programs is Hikes for Tykes each Saturday at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for preschool kids. Gates said the average attendance is about 25 people, but as many as 60 have participated.

“It’s just about getting the little guys and girls out and getting them started,” she said. “The people at the Botanical Gardens were seeing the same problem. The average age of their members was 52, so they wanted some programs to get youngsters and families out and introduce them to nature.”

Gates said the organization works with as many biologists and naturalists in the state as possible, as well as staff at various Forever Wild properties and other outdoors-related properties.

“We like to work with everybody because it makes our program better,” Gates said. “We’re trying to keep it free, so we can make it accessible to everybody. I’m very proud of the diversity and range of incomes we’ve be able to attract.”

Gates has numerous stories about how Fresh Air Family affects people who have never really experienced the outdoors.

“We took a woman to Conecuh National Forest who had never walked on grass,” she said. “She didn’t like it. She was terrified, but by the end of the trip she loved it and wanted to buy a tent and camping equipment. This is the disconnect we’re talking about.

“Last year I was walking along with a little girl, holding her hand, on a neat little hike at the Botanical Gardens. She asked how much farther we were going to walk. She said, ‘I’ve never walked this far before.’ I realized she had gone from the car door to the school, from the grocery store door to the car door. It’s really shocking, but that is what’s going on in America today.”

Gates said one example is particularly poignant to the effort to improve the health of today’s youngsters.

“We had one little boy who came to our first Gross Camp at Turkey Creek,” she said. “He was overweight and diabetic. After one week at Gross Out Camp, he went to his doctor on Monday. His doctor said, ‘What have you done?’ His numbers on his diabetes were down. He had lost about five pounds. One week of being outside is all it took. I went to a pediatric conference a few years ago, and the studies show that gyms don’t work; diets don’t work. The only thing that works on children is getting outdoors and playing. That’s the only thing that keeps kids in shape and keeps their brains working.

“This is the world’s greatest playground right here – nature. We want to bring people back. Forever Wild property is so important to us to have a place to take our children, who are stuck in houses and cul-de-sacs where there is no wilderness or wildlife, where there is nothing to see other than groomed grass and concrete. We want to bring them to places where there’s life.”

Jan Mattingly, who was in charge of the camp at Turkey Creek, said a typical agenda includes hiking, fishing, searching for invertebrates in the creek, making slime for the science experience, not to mention the manufacture of the fake vomit.

“The kids love it, and we get all this positive feedback from the parents because the kids have been outside all day,” Mattingly said. “Some of these kids have never been in a creek or played in the woods.”

The enthusiasm the kids have for the Gross Out Camp is obvious by the looks on their faces, and several were able put their approval in words.

“It’s different from other camps,” said 9-year-old Leo Hernandez. “You usually are not able to swim in creeks, and you don’t go fishing or discover things you’ve never seen before. I like finding stuff in the creek like fish and little insects.”

Ten-year-old Morgan McCrickard said it’s all about fun at Gross Out Camp.

“We’re never bored,” McCrickard said. “The experiments are a lot of fun. This is my favorite camp I’ve ever been to. At the other camps, we’ve never done anything this cool.”

With a laugh, Gates added, “Our Fresh Air Family guarantee is tired and dirty children.”

PHOTOS (By David Rainer) Youngsters participating in Fresh Air Family’s Gross Out Camp this summer frolic in the shallow, clear waters of Turkey Creek near Pinson. Anna Hammond, 9, shows off a dragonfly nymph she found hiding under a rock in Turkey Creek Nature Preserve during Gross Out Camp. Nick Lazaro, 10, examines an owl pellet to search for evidence of what a Barn Owl recently consumed for a meal.