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Coming out of Hibernation

Spring is Here!

Prior to sitting down to write this little update, I spotted a news alert marking the first grizzly bear sighting last week in Yellowstone National Park. It’s officially spring, the sun is shining, the days are getting longer, and there is a sense of optimism as COVID-19 cases are declining and more and more people are getting vaccinated. Like bears coming out of hibernation, many of us are hungry for safe human interaction and experiences to shake of the last 12 months of uncertainty and isolation brought on by the pandemic.

We’re looking forward to healing together and connecting more refugee youth to nature in the near future, and we are also happy to celebrate what we’ve accomplished since we started five years ago! To mark this milestone, REACH has launched this new website and collected impactful stories from refugee youth leaders who have grown and learned through our ecotherapy and youth development initiatives.

As we begin to emerge from the invisible walls of this pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind that we have all experienced a collective trauma. We are all going to need further exposure to restorative environments and experiences, especially refugee youth who have had limited access to positive coping mechanisms that they would normally turn to in times of crises.

It’s no coincidence that this pandemic has inspired large numbers of people to get outside, walk in the woods, or take road trips to National Parks. Scientists affirm that just a few nights camping in the woods can lower cortisol levels and that the presence of water makes these effects even stronger. In fact, they’ve concluded that even a view of nature from a window is associated with lower stress.

Now, emerging research to address the impact of pandemic-related stressors outlines three protective factors: wellness programs, social support, and diversity promotion. We at REACH recognize that the sooner positive interventions like these can be implemented, the sooner the entire well-being of each refugee youth we serve can be restored. Refugee youth need each other. They need to get outside, move their bodies, and engage in group-based activities.

Through REACH programs, refugee youth gain access to natural environments and public spaces as well as skills development opportunities that they would never know about otherwise. This exposure allows them to transfer knowledge to other family members, future Americans who will learn to love and care for their new home through stewardship and outdoor experiences. Our greatest success, in my opinion, is not just witnessing these kids overcome their fears, but also learning that they later introduce their parents and siblings to these adventures on their own! “Everything is a process, you start with the child himself, and then he’s going to affect his friends, and maybe his family, and then other people will be joining REACH and the same thing happens again. It’s a circle,” explains Abdulhafez, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee who joined us in 2017 and who is now a Peer Mentor.

Get Involved

As we enter the spring season, we will open up youth leadership programming and begin recruiting youth for our summer adventure camp and other exciting initiatives that are on the horizon. Our next event will take place on May 8th in celebration of Chicago River Day We invite you to join us as we clean up a little portion of the river at 6075 N. Lincoln Avenue. Sign up here: Chicago River Day - River Clean-Up (! Summer Adventure Camp 2021 registration begins on May 15 and runs through June 26. Keep an eye on our blog for more updates as we get closer to the date.

Exciting Updates

REACH started in 2016 in an effort to connect refugee youth from war-torn areas like Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, and Sudan to the healing impact of the outdoors through experiential learning opportunities focused on STEAM education and adventure sports. Since then, we've engaged 200 refugee youth and their families from 21 countries in more than 185 outdoor sessions, including adventure activities like kayaking, canoeing, camping, and climbing, and STEAM learning activities, like water quality monitoring, habitat assessments, river clean-ups, and forest restoration. We've also trained 15 Peer Mentors (youth leaders) who have participated in more than 43 technical and leadership skills building workshops, of whom 6 received British Canoeing certification in kayaking and canoeing.

In January 2021, REACH was invited as a fellow to join the Hello Neighbor Network (HNN), a coalition of 24 grassroots organizations working in post-refugee resettlement in the U.S. who come together to grow and inspire change. (We are thankful to HNN for the Technology Regrant from the Harnisch Foundation, which we used towards our new website!) We were also recognized as one of the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s partners in service. Last month we received one of the flags that flew in the extensive public art display on the National Mall during the 59th Inaugural Ceremony. The Field of Flags represented Americans who were unable to physically attend the 59th Presidential Inauguration. We plan to use this flag for future Peer Mentor Advisory Corps inauguration ceremonies at REACH!

This week, we are pleased to announce that we successfully raised more than $6,000 via our Spring Fundraising Campaign. We appreciate the support of all who donated, particularly those donors who provided us with a match grant, including a new partner institution that we are eager to get out on the water with this year - Prairie State Canoeists! We also just learned that we will be receiving a batch of assorted-size life jackets from the Sea Tow Foundation for our youth participants to use during our future outings.

Reemerging Stronger

As you can see, a lot has been happening behind the scenes! We have a lot to be hopeful for, but we will need to work together to keep the momentum flowing. You probably read the news back in February that the Biden Administration announced a plan to increase the refugee admissions goal, known as the presidential determination, for the remainder of this fiscal year to 62,500 — from the historic low of 15,000 — and then to 125,000 for Fiscal Year 2022. It's been two months since that announcement, and so far, nothing has been signed to officially allow more refugees to travel. In fact, more than 700 flights meant to be carrying eager refugee newcomers were cancelled and there is now an indefinite suspension in booking travel for many refugees. If you've ever asked "what can I do?" about the refugee crisis, here's an easy task: sign up to get involved in the Refugee Council USA's 2021 Refugee Advocacy Days from Monday, April 19 to Friday, April 23, 2021.

In the meantime, we will continue to train and prepare our Peer Mentors (youth leaders) to help recruit, befriend, and mentor more refugee and asylum-seeking youth to participate in our upcoming adventure camp opportunities. As refugee admission numbers eventually increase, we will be ready to welcome new families and introduce their children to the beauty of the outdoors and the gift of adventure. “I think when more refugees come to America, we can teach them because they never do these things in their own countries. Maybe they cannot afford them or they can only imagine about these things on TV, but not in the real world. By becoming part of REACH, they will learn that they can do it in real life!” explains Maryam, a 17-year-old REACH Peer Mentor from Afghanistan.

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