by Justin Randall
The Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) is a community outreach program that provides opportunities for urban youth and adults to explore, enjoy and protect the natural world. Jeff Cepek and Kris Koch are two incredible volunteers who make the ICO program in Minnesota possible.
While the patchwork has changed with each generation, the cloth that makes up the Sierra Club’s outdoor programs today was cut from the tailcoat of John Muir himself. During the Club’s founding days, this long-legged luminary and patron saint realized that the most effective method for spreading his love of wild lands was simply to help others experience them first hand. This approach engendered legislative victories that spread our nation’s burgeoning public lands system like wildfire, endowing future generations with the internationally-renowned ecosystems of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and many others.
While the hand that ignited the torch is now gone, passionate leaders across the nation continue to carry it.
Jeff Cepek of Edina is one of these leaders. Growing up in Chicago — an urban youth himself — he relished early camping trips in the North Woods. “I always looked forward to our trips as great adventures,” he said. “Those trips gave me perspective and a sense of the larger world around me.” Following a move to the Twin Cities, Jeff sought to engage his passion for nature and the outdoors by becoming involved with the North Star Sierra Club chapter. After working on issues like smart growth and green jobs, Jeff discovered a passion creating experiences for youth like the ones he treasured while growing up in Chicago.
Jeff’s energy, spirit and contagious love for the outdoors paired seamlessly with his patience and listening skills. After a few outing trips, Jeff discovered his own version of the truth Muir stumbled upon a century ago. “A simple walk through the woods fosters a trust between me and the youth we serve, which builds confidence,” Jeff said. His favorite part of sharing his passion for nature and the outdoors happens when participants’ “eyes light up as they discover what inspires them!”
To Jeff, the most important environmental issue is the protection of wild places. Through the Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors program, Jeff found a way to combine his passion for the protection of wild places with his desire to share the experiences he treasured with a new generation. In doing so, he is contributing to a century-old legacy of engagement that dates back to the birth of the American conservation movement.
Jeff’s talents have made him a welcomed addition to our Inspiring Connections Outdoors program. His wilderness walks inspire the same smiles, confidence, trust and perspective that he experienced on excursions in the woods with family and friends as a child. To the benefit of our city’s youth and the natural world, Jeff has come full circle. All involved thank him.
Kris Koch has been with ICO for more than a year, but he brings a lifetime of experience to the table. He began working with youth in a structured way when he was one himself, a student driven to help out at his high school’s rec center. “I was pretty young then, but I still learned how to keep the peace among those younger than me,” he said. This early lesson has proven invaluable on ICO trips.
That is just one part of the puzzle. For an ICO trip to be successful, the well-being of all involved is a priority. For Kris and other ICO leaders, this means paying careful attention to both the human and non-human elements of the trip. Drawing from a wealth of personal experience in the out of doors, Kris brings the logistical know-how to plan and execute trips that provide fun and adventure for all involved.
In the same spirit of John Muir, the Club’s first outing leader, Kris is driven by a desire to share his experiences. “Many of my most enjoyable experiences were outdoors, and I know that I was lucky to have access to the wilderness,” he said. “I want to give others the opportunity to explore the outdoors as well.”
In the land of 10,000 lakes, Kris sees infinite potential. When asked what he enjoys most about Minnesota’s wilderness, Kris responded, “It’s everywhere.”
Kris’ experience with youth and the outdoors have made him a perfect fit for our Inspiring Connections Outdoors program. His work to ensure that those with the least access to natural spaces get to experience the wonders and excitement of the outdoors not only continues a century-old legacy of engagement, it furthers it. Kris’ leadership is not only in action, but in thought. The North Star chapter celebrates and deeply appreciates these contributions to our community of wilderness enthusiasts. While we all benefit from this type of leadership, the real winners are the youth Kris works with and the future they represent.
Learn more about how you can get involved in Inspiring Connections Outdoors. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope you can join us!