FORCES conducts environmental outreach at Letchworth State Park for at-risk youth

Members of Geneseo’s Friends of Recreation, Conservation and Environmental Stewardship—better known as FORCES—teamed up with children from The Bridge Downtown Kid Central program for an afternoon in Letchworth State Park on Saturday Oct. 1. The Bridge is an after school program for at-risk youth in Mount Morris who—despite living minutes from the “Grand Canyon of the East”—have never previously visited the park. This outing had a two-fold significance: creating the opportunity for recreational fun and communicating the value of the outdoors to a new audience.

Although the initial itinerary intended for the FORCES volunteers to lead the children on a hike through the park, inclement weather encouraged a change in plans. The group instead attended an interpretive program at the Letchworth State Park Humphrey Nature Center.

The New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation first introduced the FORCES program in 2008 to stimulate volunteerism within state parks. The mission includes “[engaging] New York State college students to simultaneously improve New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation resources and to enrich student academic, recreational and career opportunities.”

FORCES represents one of several programs across New York that connect colleges with state parks—in this case Letchworth—where members of Geneseo FORCES dedicate remarkable resources, including fundraising for the new Nature Center.

This outing drew upon the success of last semester’s similar event, when several of the same children from The Bridge accompanied Geneseo FORCES members on a trip to Letchworth State Park. FORCES volunteers chaperoned as the children from The Bridge buzzed around unexplored terrain, investigating through the sightseeing binoculars overlooking Genesee River.

After racing around the park, volunteers and students convened in the newly opened Humphrey Nature Center—funded in part by the Geneseo-Letchworth collaboration—where they attended an interactive exhibit highlighting the mammals located within the state park. Before returning home, the FORCES team and the children ended their afternoon together—and celebrated a break in the rain—by roasting marshmallows and making s’mores in the park’s picnic area.

The Bridge not only combats racial, socioeconomic and geographic barriers with its investment in advocacy for young children of impoverished and divided families, but also seeks to rescue at-risk youth from generational cycles of violence, drug use and financial stress. It does all this by offering a safe space for these children to socialize, work and play.

Although virtually all of the children attending The Bridge live in poverty—with many of them in single-parent homes or in the care of their grandparents—program director Jim Sutton offers stability, structure and support for the kids.

“Because of their environments, all of these kids have extraordinary survival skills—they have to,” Sutton said, “Whenever I have a confrontation with one of them, afterward, I make a point of reconciling.”

Indeed, simply witnessing the excitement and curiosity shown by the children at Letchworth confirms the value of Sutton and other volunteer’s work for those who are less fortunate.