Columbia Northwest chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters forms new partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Urban Nature Partners PDX to promote Outdoor Explorers Mentor program

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Twelve-year-old RaNasia Duckett hangs with her Big Sister, Deborah Eckel. There are a lot of people in Ra'Nasia Duckett's life trying to make sure she has a fair shot.

The 12-year-old is considered at risk; she lives with her grandmother at 181st Avenue in Gresham and only recently was able to start sleeping in her own bedroom. Her grandmother had to start working overtime to afford a larger apartment. Before that, the two either shared a bed or Duckett slept on the floor.

Since grandma works often and her parents aren't in the picture, that leaves few adults around to help Duckett experience enriching activities — like a canoe trip down the Willamette River.

That's where the Columbia Northwest chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and a new partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Urban Nature Partners PDX, comes in. On a hot summer day last month, Duckett excitedly put on her life vest with her "Big Sister," Deborah Eckel, before the two joined a group of 24 on a canoe trip to Ross Island for a picnic and trash cleanup, as part of the new Outdoor Explorers Mentor program, funded by the Forest Service.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: LYNDSEY HEWITT - RaNasia Duckett, 12, middle, joins a canoe trip along the Willamette River. She participates in Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest with her Big, Deborah Eckel, seated next to her. "It helps me get to events I don't usually go to," Duckett says. Eckel has been her "Big Sister" for the past three and a half years, but the outdoor program is new, as the Forest Service works to involve more youth and low-income residents.

"Each individual national forest has its own approach to community engagement," says Brenna White, regional conservation education partnership specialist with the Pacific Northwest Region Forest Service. "Out of our regional office in Portland, there hasn't been a whole lot of involvement with the community directly, and that's something we want to change."

The Outdoor Explorers program plans to take underserved youth like Duckett on events like hiking, horseback riding, snowshoeing and other outdoor activities. White says, quite simply, things have changed for the Forest Service.

"We're just trying to bridge that gap," she says. "There's been a big shift in our population base. We're no longer an agrarian society."

She says their "ultimate goal" is to "create the next generation of conservation stewards and leaders."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: LYNDSEY HEWITT - In an effort to engage more of the community, the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. Forest Service has partnered with local organizations to get children like RaNasia Duckett outside. Citing the health benefits associated with outdoor recreation, White adds, "We're just trying to make sure they can make those connections in their back yard."

Eckel thinks the opportunities help Duckett grow in ways that aren't immediately realized. Duckett says she likes to do things through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program like shopping and going out to eat with Eckel. But Eckel knows there's much more to it than that.

"Oh my gosh, in ways we don't even know, or won't realize until years down the road, but it's an opportunity for both of us to learn and grow," Eckel says, while Duckett munched on cherries provided by the program before they headed out on the canoe, "I've never gone out on a big canoe like this along the river downtown. It's just awesome."

The two have fun in other ways, too, doing about two to three activities a month together. They learn about each other's varying interests that bridge cultural and age differences. Duckett likes to show Eckel her favorite hip-hop tracks and her favorite foods. Eckel was excited to take her to a horseback-riding camp earlier in the summer.

"She's so brave, she's been so open to trying and doing anything that I suggest, and it's cool to see that bravery," Eckel says.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: LYNDSEY HEWITT - RaNasia Duckett dreams of becoming a brain surgeon and having her own house. Duckett's father died four years ago, and her mother isn't able to care for her. Despite her parents not being around, her grandmother, along with Eckel, are helping fill some of the gaps.

Duckett is excited about eventually becoming a brain surgeon — and having her own house. The new bedroom has made a big difference for the preteen.

"It makes me feel better. I ain't gotta share a bed with anyone or sleep on the floor," she says, before paddling off onto the Willamette.

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