Outdoor Education


1. Briefly describe the structure of your program.

Survival Wilderness Adventure Training (SWAT) program takes "at-risk" youth ages 10 to 17 from public housing projects, gives them leadership, teamwork and survival skills training, and introduces them to an outdoors experience they would otherwise be most unlikely to experience.

Because it is high-risk recreation for high-risk kids, each class is small, generally about 12 participants. SWAT consists of following 10 components:

  1. a leadership reaction course,
  2. a CPR/first aid training and community care course,
  3. communication,
  4. fishing as a survival skill,
  5. rock climbing and rappelling,
  6. horseback riding,
  7. the Challenge by Choice ropes course,
  8. a pre-camping brainstorming session,
  9. a camping trip, and
  10. an awards banquet.

The project team leader and his staff recruit participants by going to public housing projects as soon as school lets out. Participants are recruited through fliers, Tucson Parks & Recreation publications, mailing lists of public-housing residents, neighborhood recreation centers, police referrals and local boxing gyms.

The SWAT program begins with an introductory evening. Program staff meets with prospective members and show slides from previous sessions. They discuss the program's policies and behavior expectations, then ask the kids to buy in by setting their own rules. Though the exact order of courses leading to the final three may vary, the leadership class always follows the day after the introduction.

SWAT emphasizes 14 leadership traits through the use of a story, "J.J. Did Tie Buckle. Each letter in the title represents one of those traits: Justice, Judgement, Dependability, Integrity, Decisiveness, Tact, Initiative, Endurance, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty and Enthusiasm. The story is followed by the leadership reaction course. This component allows the participants to work together in small groups to solve problems, make decisions and conquer obstacle courses.

The CPR/first aid and community care component usually follows next. Considering the situations these young people may encounter, the importance of early exposure to these health-related courses is obvious. The community care component shows them how small efforts make a big difference right where they live. A clean-up project is an effective demonstration that's popular with the neighborhood.

Uniformed Army National Guard personnel assist with the communications course, which teaches radio communication procedures and visual hand signals. Playing a variation on capture the flag provides an opportunity to use these skills.

Fishing is taught as a survival skill, since this food source is generally available in the wilderness. The use of natural bait is emphasized.

Rock-climbing and rappelling are activities that help build trust. The team leader explains how similarly helpless others may feel when confronting these same kids on the streets. Sheer cliffs work wonders at making this point. So do horses. The idea of climbing onto a half-ton of horseflesh is a great method of putting things into their proper perspective. Success in these activities builds self-esteem.

The Challenge by Choice ropes course leads the group back to the concept of teamwork. Getting through the ropes course, like getting through the wilderness experience to follow, requires everyone to work together. Individual success is possible only if the group succeeds.

The SWAT team meets a few days before going camping to decide where they're going, what the altitude and environment will be, and what kind of equipment they will need. This brainstorming session, again, emphasizes leadership skills and teamwork.

Winter camping is usually near Parker Canyon Lake, where the kids have the opportunity to observe bald eagles in the wild. Summer camping is at higher elevations. During their three days and two nights in the field, there are ample opportunities for the participants to utilize their new SWAT skills. This is an opportunity for kids who might never be exposed to an environment outside urban development to experience and appreciate another world.

The program ends with an awards banquet. Everybody who completes the course receives a commendation. Red Cross CPR and first aid certifications are also awarded.

2. When was the program created and why?

SWAT was developed in 1995 as a way to reach teenagers who were not attending traditional recreation outings and were the target of gang- and drug-intervention efforts. The idea was to replace criminal activities and dangerous, high-risk activities with safe, fun, adventure activities such as rock climbing, rappelling, white-water rafting, camping, spelunking, exploring and horseback riding.

Because adventure recreation carries an inherent perceived risk, SWAT is marketed to youth as a substitute for the negative risk activities present in public housing and low-income areas throughout Tucson. In the program, kids experience safe adventure recreation while discovering their potential.

3. How do you measure the program’s effectiveness?

SWAT works! Independent analysis of SWAT participants shows, with 95% certainty that positive changes in leadership aptitude result from exposure to the program. Additionally, those with lower leadership skills consistently register larger gains. The program has its greatest impact on high-risk youth with few leadership skills, exactly the population targeted.

Long-term successes and failures are yet to be demonstrated, and though some graduates have ended back in the juvenile-court system, most haven't. One SWAT graduate used his training to get a leadership position. He is now a Civil Service Recreation Assistant at Tucson's El Rio Neighborhood Center. Another program graduate changed both his physical and mental image. He changed from an out-of-shape, 250-pound youth to a healthy youth of 140 pounds. This graduate also won an Outstanding Teen Citizen Award, is attending Med Start (for kids who want to go to Medical School) and has been accepted for induction into the Army.

4. How is the program financed?

The program was grant funded but is now seeking new funding.

5. How is the community involved in the program?

The SWAT program concept is unusual enough to generate media interest. The program’s team leader has been a guest on local television programs as well as on the nationally syndicated Spanish-language television station, "Telemundo." SWAT has received local and national print attention as well.

In addition to their own community cleanup unit, SWAT participants get involved in the Forest Service, Habitat for Humanity and the Army National Guard Neighborhood Demand Drug Reduction Unit community cleanup programs. They also participate in a national river-cleanup event.

Community volunteers give time and expertise to the program, and members of SWAT teams have spoken before Tucson’s Mayor and Council about youth recreation opportunities.

6. What are the major lessons learned from this program?

A) Keep a low staff-to-participant ratio because it’s harder to gain the trust of many public-housing youth.

B) Make the program interesting and let kids have ownership of program by giving them responsibilities in planning events and in setting the rules.

C) Be sure to keep participants occupied at all times in constructive activities.

7. Contact person:

Chris Valdez, SWAT Team Leader