AWESOME PROJECT: Send NYC-based immigrant students on their first American wilderness adventure

Take a moment to think back to the last time you got out of town, and snuck off to the woods, to the lake, the mountains, the ocean. The last time you smelled clean soil or fresh pine, listened to the undiluting sound of crashing waves, or looked up into the night sky and could really see the stars. Think back to the last time you stepped far enough into nature that you could see yourself as you are in the big picture: infinitely small, yet infinitely connected to the entire world.

Now, imagine a life without those moments of escape, reflection, and healing.

For most of the students at the International High School at Union Square – which accepts students from all over the world, including many regions of conflict, and in whose corridors you’ll hear more than 30 languages spoken – it’s been a very, very long time since they escaped into the natural world. For most of them, it’s been exactly as long as the number of years since they immigrated to the US.

Tim Cote means to change that. He’s taught biology at the International High School for the last four years, and in that time has gotten his own weekend escape routine down to a science. A native of Amherst, Massachusetts, Cote grew up in the woods – running, backpacking, camping, fishing, hunting – and heads back to the forest at every possible opportunity. His students, though, many of whom ride public transit for over an hour to get to school, and whose parents both work multiple jobs, haven’t had that luxury.

That’s why Cote manages a running/survival skills/wilderness club for his students, organizing group jogs along the High Line, the East River Promenade, the docks on the Hudson, or to REI to look at sleeping bag patterns and tent design. (After that last one, they came back and started playing around with Tyvek, to see if they could sew their own sleeping bags and tents.) This is a group of kids who love asking questions like “what would we do if the city ran out of water? Power?” They also love setting physical goals. How many miles do they want to be able to run by the end of the school year? How many pushups do they want to be able to do?

“These kids are from countries where they’re not far away from what we would think of as indigenous skills,” explains Cote. “All these kids make fire in their native country. They all fish. They’re much more in touch with their food system and the natural world than most Americans are. So these kids come here with that self-sufficiency, but then they lose it very quickly, because they have access to everything. They buy pizza, and they walk around with their cell phones. So they lose it. And they don’t want to lose it. Some of them are very very conscious of losing it.”

Cote can relate. “When I first started teaching this population,” he says, laughing, “it was one of the first thing I connected with the kids about. It was like ‘we’re all living in New York City, and oh my god, this place is crazy!’”

He also knows that it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the native landscape to the immigrant population at IHSUS. Club meetings, whenever the weather isn’t good enough for an outdoor run or excursion, quickly become storytelling time. “The Jamaican kids will always tell the other kids, ‘oh, we swim in waterfalls and we do this and that,’” says Cote, “and the Chinese kids will say ‘oh, we sleep in the mountains.’ It always turns into a slideshow party. They’re getting on the internet and showing each other their wilderness and saying ‘I used to swim in this lake or I climbed this mountain.’ It’s so adorable, but you know, it’s also representing something that they’ve lost. It’s kind of part of their immigration story. They lose friends and they lose family, and they lose that landscape. And they get the cityscape in its place.”

It’s easy to see why Cote can’t keep up with the demand. The need for this kind of space, in which students can connect with each other through memories of their homes, is overwhelming. Club attendance is higher than ever, but the school can only fund one teacher’s extra time toward the club. That means that in order to maintain the 10 to 1 student-teacher ratio, Cote’s had to cull the ten-student group, turning away dozens of kids. “There’s no lack of interest from the students, that’s fur sure,” he says. “I could triple the size of the club in two minutes. There’s a lot of kids begging to get in right now.”

The excitement is at an especially fevered pitch this month, because the club is on the brink of its first truly big adventure. Cote and a colleague of his are planning to take the ten club members out to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail at the end of the school year, and to sleep out under the stars for one night. Cote, who is an experienced wilderness guide and EMT, has already invited a friend in to talk with his students about the AT, and about the history of our national parks system. If it can be said that the true face of a nation is its wilderness, then this will be the students’ first time seeing America. They can’t wait.

Financially, though, organizing a trip out of the city is an uphill battle. The bus rental alone will cost about $2,000, and then there are supplies to think of. “Our hands are tied until we can raise that money,” says Cote, and there are no guarantees. He’s determined not to let his students down; they know disappointment too well already.

“The kids are super excited about it, but they’re cautiously excited” he explains. “This is a group of kids for whom it is not uncommon for things to fall through. Every one of the kids in the club is living below the poverty line, and every one of them has probably been let down in some way. They’re expecting that it might not happen. No one’s ever taken them on a trip like this. It’s a tough pill to swallow, if it doesn’t happen. We still have a lot of money to raise.”

To donate toward the trip, visit the club’s ioby campaign page here. And the next time you make your own escape into the restorative wilderness, may it be twice as beautiful.