Connecting children with God in the great outdoors

In 2011 the Central Territory introduced an initiative called The Salvation Army Outdoors (TSAO). Building on the great tradition of summer camps, TSAO has sought to bring more children, especially those in impoverished urban settings, into the great outdoors.

Today, TSAO’s mission couldn’t be more timely or relevant. Childhood obesity rates in America have skyrocketed with the average child spending more than seven hours in front of an electric screen and just 30 minutes outdoors. And though they’re more technologically connected, youth are more disconnected from God since they feel closest to Him in nature as revealed through a worldwide Search Institute survey.

With this impetus, the territory has been making a concerted effort to strengthen and expand TSAO. Developing a wide range of partnerships has been key to success since they provide additional funding or equipment, professionally produced materials and unprecedented opportunities for kids to experience nature and connect with its Creator. For instance, through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, children spent a week in the Chippewa National Forest, and through generous scholarships of Safari Club International, 10 leaders attend an intensive Wilderness Leadership Training Camp in the Tetons each summer.

Ongoing leadership training in the divisions has been paramount as well. As of this summer, more than 450 leaders had been trained to help develop character, self-esteem and confidence in youth through TSAO. According to Jerrie Miller, territorial director of camping, community centers and outdoor ministries, they’ve not only learned how to use the curriculum but how to teach and apply a lesson from the Bible to it.

The curriculum incorporates dozens of outdoor activities. Some are time-honored like fishing or canoeing, while others are newer like geocaching and Tough Mudder obstacle courses. It can be as peaceful as watching a sunrise or as subtle as studying a tree. Some kids learn nature photography, while others grow their own “pizza garden.” Many have gravitated to archery, and clubs have been formed with divisional competitions emerging. There is something for every age, interest and fitness level.

Many corps now use TSAO with their character-building programs, after-school activities, Sunday school or vacation Bible school, and day camps. “It’s flexible enough to offer alternatives or enhancements for what a Salvation Army unit needs,” said Bruce McAllister, TSAO partnership development and outreach coordinator.

Looking to the future of TSAO, the territory hopes to add a dedicated healthy-kids initiative and more family-oriented activities and to provide broader training in other territories.

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