A group of fifth-grade students from Frances W. McClenney Elementary School are running around Belle Isle, watching the rapids, and playing with bugs, or refusing to, depending on whether the student finds them gross or cool.
These scenes may feel routine, but for many of the students reached by the Blue Sky Fund, they are transformative.
The Richmond-based nonprofit works with more than 2,000 students a year, most of them attending elementary school at a Richmond Public School. Those students are paired with a Blue Sky instructor, who takes them on a series of five field trips to discover the city’s natural treasures.
In a community blessed with a wealth of outdoor beauty, access to those spaces is often as unequal as the city’s history, and many of these students rarely play or explore outdoors.
“A lot of times, they don’t associate outside as being a safe environment,” says Amanda Godbold Payne, the group’s executive director. “We’re hoping to show them it can be safe, that this is what you can do in parks and green spaces, and that they belong here, too. This is a public space for them as well.”
The Blue Sky Fund has an impressive track record of making a big impact on a shoestring budget. The group has an annual budget of slightly less than $1 million, and in 2019 employed 51 staff and had 87 volunteers.
COVID-19 decimated the organization, as schools went online for a year, but the group has resumed normal programming and is running its full Explorers program in 12 schools this year.
The group organizes five field trips a year for third-through-fifth grades, taking care of the transportation and logistics so the teachers aren’t responsible for additional work.
At the end of those sessions, students leave with an expanded view of their community.
“We had a grandparent chaperoning a trip to Belle Isle,” Payne recalls. “Walking over the bridge, they’re like, ‘I can’t wait to come back! I’ve lived in Richmond my whole life, and never been to Belle Isle.’ Just the excitement that they could bring their families, their extended families, back to these places.”
The Blue Sky Fund works because of its part-time staff, who devote the school year to running groups and getting to know kids.
For many, it’s an introduction into the world of outdoor education. Most are young adults, and may be contemplating their next career steps.
Angel Guerre-Chaley returned for a second year as a Blue Sky staffer this year, and says the role involves far more than just providing the lessons.
“There’s a lot of character growth,” she says. “A lot of these kids have a lot of internal or at-home struggles, and I feel like we really get to connect with them in a good way, and teach them values they can use at home.
She adds that it’s really cool to go into the school and realize the kids she’s worked with still remember her. “That’s really awesome to see they remember me and connected with me. I feel like we are offering them a person to count on, that they know we’ll be there and they can trust us with things and talk to them.”
Jacob Minnick is the program coordinator for the Explorers program; Blue Sky Fund also runs more intensive clubs and leadership groups for middle and high school students. Minnick says the group’s employees are passionate about the outdoors, which helps create excitement for the students.
“It’s very mission-driven, and typically people who work here are here for the right reasons,” he says, noting that this part-time job is not going to make anyone crazy wealthy. “I like working with people who are motivated to see the same things in kids, the sense of wonder and the curiosity.”
The Blue Sky Fund takes elementary school students on five field trips over the course of the school year, but the first is just steps away – the school’s outdoor area.
The message is that enjoying the outdoors isn’t just something that happens at national parks or scenic places, but can take place anywhere.
It’s also an opportunity for the educators to meet the students and introduce the rules and procedures of the trips. Earlier this year, a group of Blue Sky educators was working at Westover Hills Elementary School. They were introducing students to tools that measure the weather, and then did interactive games and teamwork activities to show the importance of working together on the trips.
Max Peronnet was leading one of those activities.
“You can see the culture change during the field trips,” he says. “They wouldn’t normally answer questions at the beginning of the year, and now you can see them participating. They’re a little more excited about it. It’s a cool thing to see them change.”
Students are asked how many “points” they think their class will earn during the day after the introduction. If they meet their objective, they receive a certificate to display in the classroom.
Crystal Wherrity teaches fourth grade at Westover Hills, and said the Blue Sky trips are a wonderful addition to the school year.
“A lot of what we’re doing with Blue Sky, it matches up to the curriculum,” she says. “They do a good job of encouraging the kids throughout the day with the point system. It encourages them to self-reflect, but also work as a group. Just the fact that they get to show off that they did – they have a little bit of pride.”
The Blue Sky Fund started in 2007, and has worked on growing and expanding its reach ever since.
More schools are clamoring for the program, but budgetary constraints have led organizers to focus on maintaining the deep impact in the schools they are current in, instead of spreading themselves thin trying to reach more students. Payne says they hope to be in an additional five or six schools within the next five years.
Recruiting is the other challenge, with about 50% of the part-time staff new for each school year.
She explains that people are drawn to the Blue Sky Fund by a desire to help communicate the importance of nature and the environment to a population that often doesn’t get to hear that message.
“We’ve had students, when we drive over the Belvidere Bridge, ask if it’s the ocean,” she says. “And it’s just like, wow, you realize how small their world has been compared to what we assume somebody’s world would be at that juncture.”