SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (BRAIN) — The best classroom for kids is the classroom that has no walls. With that pointed remark, Sally Jewell outlined her goal to raise $20 million and boost a national network of volunteers to introduce America's youth to the outdoors.
"We know that if we can connect our youth to our public lands that it will change them for the better," said Jewell, who is using her new role as secretary of the interior to bring attention to the growing disconnect between youth and nature.
Jewell returned to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market on Wednesday morning as its keynote speaker at the Outdoor Industry Association's annual breakfast. A packed ballroom welcomed Jewell back to the show.
After all, she had spent almost 14 years at REI, first as its chief operating officer and later as its CEO, and now leads a diverse federal agency of some 70,000 employees.
Jewell, 57, confirmed as the agency's secretary last April, wryly called the process a "cleansing experience" as the FBI probed every nook and cranny of her career while vetting her nomination to become the nation's 51st interior secretary. She is only the second woman to hold the post.
Sprinkling her 30-minute speech with quick quips delivered with a smile, Jewell returned again and again to the need for youth to get outside. "Children need time to play and it's best to play outside in an unstructured environment," said Jewell, the mother of two children, now adults. Her comments echo many of the same concerns voiced in the bicycle industry — how to get kids to set aside their electronic gadgets, go outside and spend time on bikes.
Demographics are facts, and she pointed out that today the National Park Service, which oversees 401 parks sprawling across 84 million acres, finds itself playing host to an older, mostly white demographic. Yet, she added, national parks offer some of the best classrooms in the world for children to visit.
"How do we connect this new generation to the outdoors?" she asked. Part of the answer is boosting volunteers for the Youth Conservation Corps from approximately 300,000 to 1 million, she said. And Jewell is out to help raise money for the Corps.
She told some of the industry's leading company executives filling the Salt Lake Marriott to hear her speak that American Eagle Outfitters, a company with few ties to the outdoor industry, had pledged $1 million to support that effort.
It was the company's largest donation ever. Why? In part to do good, but also to connect its brand with America's youth, she said. And part of their goal is to hire youth to work in its stores who have benefited from reconnecting with the outdoors.