Keeping Our Cultural Connection: Getting Urban Latino Youth into the Great Outdoors

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Imagine if you never left your neighborhood. Imagine if you never had the opportunity to hike or camp. Imagine never having seen snow. For many urban Arizona youth, it’s an unfortunate reality. Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo Is an active advocate for these kids because he knows that experiencing the great outdoors has a beneficial impact on a child’s development. Here, he shares his story. (Plus you'll see photos of Free Fishing Day organized by Supervisor Gallardo and HECHO on October 7!) 

Free Fishing Day in Arizona, October 7, 2017

Free Fishing Day in Arizona, October 7, 2017

My family comes from the small town of Tolleson outside of Phoenix, and when I was around 4 years old, we moved to West Phoenix. It was a new development called Maryvale, and it has been my home ever since.

Growing up, my parents were very involved in a lot of my activities, including soccer and little league, and they were also Scout Masters. Being in the Scouts really got me into being outdoors. It meant being able to go outside of metropolitan areas and go up north and experience hiking and camping and fishing. That was my introduction to the rural areas of Arizona. It was a big positive influence in my life.

Beyond my parents and myself, I have a relatively large extended family with deep roots in the region. Growing up, we would get together with all of my different relatives and cousins every weekend at my grandparent’s home. We did everything together as a family – and much of it was outdoors. We went camping together. We celebrated most holidays and 3-day weekends at Encanto Park. They had a golf course and little canoes that you could rent and go fishing. It was a fairly large park and, growing up, we spent a lot of time there.  I have a strong cultural and familial connection to the outdoors. 

Times have changed a lot since then – many of our kids face tremendous challenges every day. Many of our families live below the poverty line and struggle just to put food on the table.

When I was growing up, I knew that when I got home from school there was always something to eat. After that, I was outside somewhere. I rode my bike all of the time – from the time I got home from school until the sun went down.

Many kids today come home from school to empty houses. Nowadays, both parents need to work and oftentimes it’s not the traditional 8-5 jobs, but odd jobs with odd hours. So the parents aren’t there to spend the time with the kids. It leaves kids stuck at home and not experiencing the same activities I had. They simply don’t have those outdoor opportunities that helped me flourish as a child.

I’m a strong believer in getting kids outdoors. As an avid fisherman, I’ve seen how giving kids a fishing pole and teaching them how to put it in the pond helps them become a better person and be more successful in school. Many lessons on persistence, patience, strategy, mindfulness, and the connection we have to the environment can all be learned through fishing.  I believe every kid should have the opportunity to experience the outdoors and these important lessons.

Free Fishing Day in Arizona, October 7, 2017

Free Fishing Day in Arizona, October 7, 2017

Personally, I also coach a little league team. Each year we bring 5th graders from various schools to a Diamondback game. A lot of these kids live around the stadium and can see it, but never get to go inside. I’ve always believed if you give these kids an opportunity to get involved in the community, that’s when you’ll see them flourish. So, they have to earn their tickets to the game by doing a community service project, and then writing an essay about their experience. That’s what “pays” for their ticket to the game. This year we had about 2,000 kids participate. Every kid will get a ticket to the game, a hot dog, a drink, and an opportunity to get on the field and meet the players and Baxter the mascot.

Many of these kids have also never been outside of their neighborhood – never experienced hiking or fishing or camping under the stars. I’m part of the Big Brother Big Sisters program and I’ve had a Little Brother for 5 or 6 years now. He told me he was from South Phoenix and he had never seen snow. We jumped in our car and went to Flagstaff and he played in the snow and it was amazing. He is just one example of thousands of kids who have never been outside of their neighborhoods – never even touched snow. We take this stuff for granted. And at what cost to the children in our communities?

There’s a connection between success in school and what they do outside of the school. Being outdoors and being with friends and relaxing, breathing in fresh air and enjoying a great sport - it’s an experience that every young kid should have and if I can help a child have this experience, I will.

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On Saturday October 7th, along with several city officials from Phoenix including 3 Latino state legislators, Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo hosted a Fishing Day at the Cesar Chavez Park to encourage families to get outdoors and to discuss the importance of public lands. Supervisor Gallardo spent the day with HECHO and the Arizona Game & Fish teaching kids how to fish and grilling hot dogs!

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Supervisor Gallardo is a fourth generation Arizona native. In 2002, he was elected to the State House of Representatives in a new legislative district covering the southwest valley. In October of 2001, he was appointed to the Cartwright Elementary School Governing Board to fulfill an unexpired term, and then later elected in 2002 and in 2010 for 4-year terms. Supervisor Gallardo currently serves as the Governing Board President of the Cartwright Elementary School District. In 2004, He was elected to the Phoenix Union High School Board and left Phoenix Union to run for the Arizona State Senate.