By Sharon Still

ICOphotoTeaching underprivileged children about the wonders of nature by participating in a variety of outdoor activities is the main focus of Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) Tampa Bay, an outreach arm of the Sierra Club.

Started in the early 1970s and up until July 1, known as Inner City Outings, the program now includes 55 chapters and 14,000 participants across the country.

ICO Chair Rocky Milburn is an avid outdoorsman and has been involved with youth his entire life. He explained that the group owns eight canoes that it bought with a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary. Monthly outings include canoe trips where the children learn about plants and animals, trips to the beach where they study erosion, hikes where they learn about preservation and trips to the Manatee Viewing Center, among others.

Locally, the children come from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Riverview and Brandon and the Academy Prep Center of Tampa. Milburn says that since 1999, ICO Tampa Bay has provided about 4,600 youth the chance to explore the outdoors as well as opportunities for personal growth and development.

“Our goal is to teach kids about this beautiful country and the outdoors,” Milburn said. “ We encourage the kids to ask as many questions as they want. All of our volunteers are very passionate about this and want to see the children learn.”

While the biggest thing that the organization needs is monetary donations, Milburn said it is the volunteers that hold it all together.

“We are looking for people who want to get out and help the kids,” he said.

There are numerous opportunities including fundraising, grant writing and administrative work, but what the group needs most is volunteers to take the youth out on activities. “We have big plans,” Milburn said. “We want to add more agencies, bring in teenagers and incorporate some high adventure activities and overnight camping.”

All volunteers are trained in basic CPR, First Aid and outdoor skills and undergo a Level Two background check.

Dr. Robert Norman, a dermatologist in Riverview, is a supporter of the organization and said, “It is amazing to see these kids in one of their first times in nature. I have been teaching them to throw a cast net and catch fish.”

To get involved, call 966-9785 or e-mail tbico@live.com.Visit www.ico.sierraclub.org/tampabay.