Thomas Jones, 17, is an inner-city kid who, statistically, had a greater chance of dropping out of high school or getting shipped off to prison than he had of summiting a 13,000-foot peak in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Yet despite the odds, Jones found himself climbing the Grand Teton peak this summer as a participant in City Kids, a program aimed at getting inner-city youth off the streets and into the great outdoors.

"I can’t even describe it," Jones (pictured above, left) said when recalling memories of his trip. "It’s the highlight of my life.”

Jones has been part of the Washington D.C.-based City Kids program for the past several years. The initiative works with kids in the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods. The majority of these kids live below the poverty line. Many have lost loved ones to violence or have family members who are currently in prison.

The idea behind City Kids is to get kids out of these neighborhoods and into wilderness adventures that help them learn, grow and build the skills they need to set goals and work towards their dreams. The program involves a yearly summer camp as well as year-round support involving after-school programs, weekend hiking or rock-climbing trips, and longer camping and wilderness adventures over spring break.

City Kids backpacking in Shenandoah National Park City Kids' participants on a weekend backpacking trip to Shenandoah National Park. (Photo: City Kids Wilderness Project/Facebook)

Kids generally get started in the program in the sixth grade and hopefully stick with it throughout their middle and high school years. The goals for each kid are for them to graduate high school with a plan for the future that includes either college or a job. The program also encourages students to become active and involved members of their communities.

And they must be doing something right. In D.C., where the high school graduation rate hovers around 65 percent, the graduation rate for City Kids is over 95 percent. Even more than that, the program is helping urban kids who might not otherwise venture into a national parks get connected to nature in a way that will make them more likely to visit and help protect those parks in the future.

As the National Park Service marks its 100th birthday this month, the agency has made an active push to engage two groups it's had trouble connecting with in the past — kids and minorities. NPS surveys show that only 9 percent of park visitors are Hispanic, 7 percent are African-Americans, and 3 percent are Asian. At the same time, the average age of the national park visitor has risen from around 26 in 1969 to 45 in 2007, indicating that kids aren't as interested in national parks as their parents and grandparents were.

These are two issues the National Park Service needs to address if it hopes to stay relevant into its next 100 years.

A recent alumni of the City Kids program, Tyrhee Moore, did so well with the initiative that he was selected by the National Outdoor Leadership School to take part in the first African-American ascent of Denali — an experience that he never in his wildest dreams would have thought about before his involvement with City Kids. Before his first summer camp experience, Moore noted that the closest he'd ever come to a mountain was the pile of clothes that built up on his bedroom floor. Summiting Denali has given him a new perspective on life.

"I can compare everything I do in a normal day to the situations that I’ve been through, and they seem so small compared to what it took to climb Denali,” Moore said in an interview with WVU Today. Moore recently graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in sports management. In addition to traveling the country speaking to kids about getting connected with nature and looking for ways to get outside their comfort zones, Moore regularly returns to City Kids summer camp to act as a counselor and mentor for the next generation of participants.

When City Kids meet national parks, everybody wins. To find out more about the program, check out the City Kids website and watch this video, which does a great job explaining what kids get out of the program:

Program connects at-risk kids with nature
City Kids program offers life-changing experiences in national parks to kids from some of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods.