Lately, it seems as though we're hard-pressed to find something encouraging or uplifting. In a time marked by uncertainty and tragedies that capture headline after headline — from the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 to devastating weather events and community violence — families, neighbors, youth and our entire community are balancing a lot.
“And it’s impacting us again and again,” said Wilbert Warren, a local community member and longtime social services professional.
“COVID has impacted all of us. We’ve been impacted by what’s going on in our country for the last couple of years.… Family members actually dying. People locked in. It’s impacted a lot of people, in a lot of ways.”
Warren serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of I’m Hooked, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and organizing activities that connect youth to nature and “enrich young lives with skills that can be used over a lifetime,” including problem solving, employment and leadership skills.
His organization is one of 10 working with Multnomah County Public Health’s Community & Adolescent Health program through a federally funded project aimed at curtailing violence and negative health outcomes by focusing on upstream prevention efforts.
I’m Hooked receives grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s RACE-VIP project, also known as Realizing and Advancing Collective Equity in Violence Prevention Efforts for Youth of Color.
Locally, the project is administered by Multnomah County’s Community and Adolescent Health Program, which is a part of the Public Health Division’s Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion team.
Since the beginning of the year through August, preliminary data shows there were over 809 incidents of gunfire in Portland alone. The number does not consider other types of violence that can wound, seriously injure or kill in some other way.
“We still don’t know the full physical and mental impacts that witnessing or being touched by so many crises will have on our children," said Cherrell Edwards, Community and Adolescent Health program supervisor. “But we need to equip our young people with every tool possible so that their life trajectory is one of unlimited possibility and not one of trauma and crises.”
This summer, local organizations brought together youth from the community for education and employment opportunities, as well as connection and a sense of safety.
I’m Hooked alone brought together more than 130 youth, many of them Black, Indigenous or from other communities of color. They joined 50 adult mentors — guardians, parents, and even juvenile court counselors from neighboring counties — at a private outdoor refuge.
Over 30 organizations from the region, including POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School, Latino Network, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Oregon State Marine Board, law enforcement, local businesses and other RACE VIP grantees such as Experience Life Science Outdoors and Black Community of Portland’s Little Africa.
“Today is what we’re calling the great outdoor experience, the ‘I’m Hooked Outdoor Experience,’” Warren said to the group. “The whole purpose of this is really reaching out to populations who just really have not had the opportunity or time to engage in nature.”
“We want to make sure that we can make a positive impact on the racism that’s affecting our communities in Multnomah County today and the violence that’s taken place.”
The program was designed to inspire and empower youth and serve as a pro-social experience. Young people are introduced not only to fishing basics like casting, catching and releasing, but also to lessons in aquatic ecology, water safety and bike safety.
Youth also practiced breathing and meditation techniques at a health and wellness station. The event concluded with a career exploration session.
“The number-one priority is the youth — youth who just need these experiences,” said Warren. “You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to have that dream.
“You have to have responsibility. Get that education, take action and then become an ambassador, be a mentor and pay that forward…. believe in yourself and that dream.”