Island in the Sun
Nestled in New Orleans’ City Park on a little island lies the Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program, or LOOP as it’s affectionately known. The island itself is not tremendously secluded, but you do get a special degree of separation while you are there that makes you feel as if you’re somewhere far away on your own private playground. Everywhere you look there is a smiling, sun-touched face with sweat rolling down and the sound of laughter joins the symphony of insects. On this island is where I would spend the first half of the scorching, sticky Louisiana summer to learn more about what it means to trust, empower, and serve others.
LOOP is the pride and joy of all who work there, but will always be remembered as the baby of the late founder, Dan Forman. Mr. Forman is originally from Rhode Island, but found himself deeply in love with the music and culture of New Orleans and decided to make it his home in 1997. Mr. Forman believed that lessons learned through outdoor education had the potential to make a lasting impact on the lives of the city’s poor who are often cursed with a cycle of violence and dysfunction. That year, Mr. Forman began work with an emerging organization funded by NORD (New Orleans Recreation Department) that began establishing outdoor recreation facilities for inner-city schools all while operating on a whopping $5,000 operating budget. Participants in the program would engage in traditional classroom-style environmental education before progressing to educational experiences outdoors through canoeing and fishing trips and a plethora of other activities.
Seven years later, LOOP would be born out of Mr. Forman’s frustrations with city administration as well as a request by the then Lieutenant Governor, Mitch Landrieu. Mr. Landrieu’s request was for a similar program that could be adopted by the Louisiana Office of State Parks. The result was a program that combined typical classroom learning, which would be re-enforced by physical outdoor experiences that would foster social-emotional growth. Shortly after its official creation, the program would experience the bitter repercussions of Hurricane Katrina with the rest of the city, but would also gain an important financial stabilizer from the expanding charter school system that recognized the important role that LOOP could play. The funds from the charter schools would turn into the nonprofit support for the program, Friends of LOOP. Friends of LOOP played a crucial role then and now as the organization faces looming state budget cuts.
In the time after Mr. Forman’s passing in 2012, the organization is still out to fulfill their mission “to provide underserved youth with an opportunity for social-emotional growth through outdoor education”. The program manages City Park’s high ropes challenge course as a way to diversify outdoor education as well as a marketing tool to keep different groups interested in coming out.
During the summers, past LOOP participants from partner schools and the larger community are encouraged to apply to participate in LOOP’s Adventure Challenge Leadership Training (ACLT). The target population of the program is youth in Greater New Orleans aged anywhere from 14-19. Some may be at risk of dropping out, or have dropped out and returned. As the program director Valerie Bodet describes it, “LOOP is a place for these youth to try and try again in an environment that tells them that they can succeed. For a lot of them, they have never known what that feels like, so LOOP provides a unique experience for empowerment.”
Youth who are accepted are given a thorough introduction to challenge course safety and facilitation training with live hours belaying. At the conclusion of the internship, LOOP interns are given a skills test where they are able to demonstrate their technical skills knowledge to the staff. The staff combines evaluations from the skills test along with internship long observations of soft skills to make a decision on potentially hiring some of the interns who score highly to work for LOOP. While participating in the internship, the students gain professional work experience and references from all of the trained staff members who run the training as well as tangible belay skills and more abstract social soft skills. The focus with the internship here is directly in line with the mission, and that is to provide outdoor learning over a much longer period of time in hopes that it will foster a lifelong passion for all learning.
My particular role with LOOP this summer has been multi-faceted. On one hand, I am a full-fledged ACLT ropes course intern alongside the students, and a fundraising intern on the other to observe the grant writing and application process. My work with the interns was more of a mentorship through the ACLT training as myself and the staff members tried to pick at least two students to keep under our wing for training and help them through a project or work through a skill. This part of my internship was actually one of my favorites as it gave me a refreshing change of perspective from learning about the different lives of the youth in New Orleans.
LOOP is an outreach program such that it fosters growth among youth in the New Orleans community, but LOOP also reaches out to other organization in New Orleans committed to empowerment such at Grow Dat Farms and the Lighthouse Louisiana summer camp for visually impaired. During my time with LOOP, we have worked extensively with these organizations through our programming and that work has truly taught me a lesson in helping your neighbor. This is what LOOP is truly about – building a community of service.
The end of June 2015 marks an important time in LOOP’s history – the organization will find out in the next couple of days if they will be able to continue outdoor education on the magic island in City Park. As a fundraising intern, I’ve observed the application process for a Propeller Foundation incubation , which has complimented my public health studies in nonprofit fundraising. I’ve also been able to observe some of the day-to-day operations of Louisiana State Parks officials as well as the basic structure as a department of the state. My hope is that this incredible organization survives and that I will still be able to volunteer my time with LOOP on the island in City Park.