Washington II Washington aims to broaden horizons for inner-city youth.
By Anne Kim-Dannibale
Much is often made about efforts to create “green space” throughout urban landscapes. But sometimes, the best tonic for a hectic life is the real thing itself — moss on old-growth trees, mountaintop vistas rewarded after a hard climb on foot, that perfect serenity found under a tree canopy.
But for too many inner-city youth in Washington, life only exists within a two-block radius. Enter Davy Rothbart. Writer, founding editor of the whimsical Found Magazine, and frequent contributor to public radio’s “This American Life.” For the past four years, the author of “My Heart Is an Idiot” and a small group of friends have led hiking and camping trips for about two dozen kids to nearby forests like the Shenandoah Mountains, exposing them for the first time to real-life nature, expanding their worlds well beyond life in troubled neighborhoods. They’ve dubbed their fledgling organization Washington II Washington in reference to their first trip which took kids out to Mt. Washington.
“In a way, it’s like rediscovering the outdoors yourself,” says Rothbart, who grew up camping and hiking in Michigan. “I see through the eyes of people who’ve never been there before. Everything is astonishing or thrilling to them.”
The idea came to Rothbart as a way to honor the memory of longtime friend Emmanuel Durant Jr., a young Southeast resident who was killed while protecting his family from robbers on New Year’s Eve in 2009. The newly engaged young man’s life was cut short just as he was training to become a firefighter. Since then, Washington II Washington has taken about 100 youth between the ages of 6 and 17 along with members of Durant’s family on several trips.
“A lot of these kids come from some pretty difficult home lives. They’re gonna be back in the situation they were before,” says Rothbart. “We’re not transforming their lives, but I do think there’s some powerful aspect to broadening their perspective.”
The group’s latest trip takes place August 7 through August 11 in the Allegheny National Forest. About 30 campers will learn the basics of camping and hiking, like pitching a tent, along with learning about animals — many they’ve never seen before. The group is trying to raise at least $8,000 to cover the cost for each camper through an Indiegogo campaign, which draws from individual donors. At press time, Washington II Washington had raised $6,600. Rothbart says every dollar goes directly to covering costs for each child.
Currently, the annual trips draw young people from Washington, Michigan and New Orleans, but Rothbart says he’d like to expand the organization in the near future. “I really love what we’re able to do and I’d like to be able to bring a few other kids each year,” he says. “But we’re limited by the funding we can get. The more funding we have, the more kids we can bring.”
“For the kids, it astounds them that somebody who doesn’t know them wants the best for them, and wants them to experience something special,” adds Rothbart. “I think that in itself is meaningful to them.”