By introducing South Los Angeles students to the great outdoors, Bill Vanderberg '76 helps kids become kids.Somewhere along the streets of South Los Angeles, it happens every year. A boy leaves home early on a smoggy morning and makes his way toward school, where he will meet his friends before the bell. As he walks alone down 52nd Street toward Crenshaw High School, a group of older boys approach him from behind.
"Where you from?" one shouts.
The boy turns around, frozen in his tracks, realizing that his answer could determine whether he is a potential gang enemy or recruit. But on this morning, his fate doesn't rest with his street address. One of the gang members recognizes him from somewhere.
"Leave him alone, he's Vanderberg's kid."
As he continues toward the safe haven of Crenshaw, the boy knows that joining the Eco Club run by Bill Vanderberg '76 is the best decision he ever made.
Dean of Students: West-Coast StyleAs dean of students at Crenshaw, a school of 2,000 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Vanderberg knows too well about the gang rivalries that plague his students' neighborhoods. That's why his other role---adviser of the school's Eco Club---is so important.
Vanderberg was featured on the CBS Early Show in May for his work with the club, which has introduced hundreds of inner-city students to the natural wonders of the Santa Monica Mountains and Yosemite National Park. The club is now the largest after-school program at Crenshaw, and its popularity continues to grow.
"They become kids," Vanderberg says of his Eco Club hikers. "They laugh, they play, and do what most children do. But my kids haven't had this experience before." He says that many of his students had never been to a park or seen the ocean until one of these hikes.
Vanderberg's path to L.A. from his hometown of Mount Vernon, N.Y., took him through rural Pennsylvania, where he was a psychology major at Franklin & Marshall. He heard about the College from an alumnus. "I fell in love with F&M on my high school visit," Vanderberg remembers. "But I got rejected the first time I applied and moved to California. I applied again to F&M the next year through early admission and was accepted."
"Being a black student at F&M in the 1970s was challenging because there was still a lot of racial discrimination going on. I had come out of the civil rights movement, protesting in high school, and then went to F&M. Not many people do that."
But the challenges Vanderberg faced at a predominantly white college may have helped prepare him for the trials of being a high school dean in South Los Angeles. He started teaching history and economics at Crenshaw in 1999, becoming dean of students three years ago. "As a dean, I've had to be a disciplinarian," Vanderberg admits. "But that's what deans are on the West Coast, full-time disciplinarians."
Discipline becomes a different issue when gangs are involved. Crenshaw is just a few blocks north of the birthplace of the Rolling 60s Crips, and many of its students are from neighborhoods of the Crips. The community around the school also has a large population of Bloods, rivals of the Crips.
Five of Vanderberg's former students were shot during a two-month period this past winter. He has attended 10 funerals in the past nine years.
"The issue of gang violence is very, very real," Vanderberg says. "Every day, kids essentially go through a gauntlet, and they have to plan out how to get to school to avoid trouble. The school itself is a safe haven. I try to control what happens in school, but I can't control what happens outside."
"I treat everyone with respect, and it's taken 10 years to earn that respect. You can't be afraid---once the kids smell that, you're finished. I'd stand toe-to-toe with kids, and they see that and know you won't back down," he says. "But they're just kids in a tough situation through no fault of their own. Being in gangs is what some of them have to do to survive."
Into the WildFor many students at Crenshaw, the Eco Club has become a popular way to become part of an influential and empowering group. "Kids need to be affiliated with someone or something," Vanderberg says. "For some, it's a sport or the choir. For others, it's the Eco Club."
Vanderberg inherited the Eco Club several years ago when the teacher previously in charge moved to another school. Having been a longtime Boy Scout leader before arriving at Crenshaw, Vanderberg seemed like a perfect sponsor for the club.
"By the time I took over the Eco Club, I was already inviting students on day hikes. Before I knew it, more students came than my own scouts. So the Eco Club seemed like a natural fit."
The club operates as a scout program---"Crenshaw Eco Club Venture Crew 192"---and receives ongoing, sustainable funding from the Sierra Club. Vanderberg's program receives $50,000 annually as part of the "Building Bridges to the Outdoors" program, which helps with transportation, equipment and food costs.
Vanderberg takes the students on about 20 trips per year, mostly day hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains. There's also a weeklong educational trip to
Yosemite National Park, a "Survivor Challenge" campout in October and a hike through the streets of L.A. in January.
The Survivor Challenge is one of Vanderberg's favorite events of the year. "After school one day, we go to a park not far from the school. We take an evening hike, then roast marshmallows and have s'mores. We have sleeping bags from Coleman and sleep outside, and we're back at school by 11 the next morning. For most kids, it's their first time camping. They come back excited, word gets out and more students get involved."
Word also got out to CBS, which honored Vanderberg as an "Early's Angel" during the May 15 broadcast of the Early Show. Weatherman Dave Price broadcast live from the Crenshaw gym, which was packed with more than 300 students and faculty.
"It was incredible. I had no idea it would be about me so much," Vanderberg says. "It had to be live for the East Coast, so it began at 4 a.m. I had no idea we could pull it off, but it goes to show the impact of the Eco Club." And the impact continues to grow: the Crenshaw Eco Club has been used as a model for obtaining funding by similar programs across the country.
No Permission Slip RequiredGiven the success of the Eco Club, Vanderberg wondered what might happen if he invited Crenshaw's rival high school, Dorsey, to participate in the annual trip to Yosemite last spring.
"Crenshaw has a large Crips population, and Dorsey has a lot of Bloods," Vanderberg says. "They're gang rivals, athletic rivals and academic rivals. I was interested in building bridges across the communities, so I approached the other Eco Club, and we got six kids from each school to go to Yosemite."
The trip resulted in new relationships, and rivalries fell by the wayside. In fact, the students bonded to such a degree that they renamed the club by combining the schools' names: "Dorshaw Eco Club."
"There was some concern before the trip, because these students never had any interaction. But when you take them out of their environment, they had other issues to worry about besides rivalries, like the cold and the snow. It helped foster a relationship."
The day hikes to the Santa Monica Mountains also have produced memorable stories for Vanderberg, who recalls one student asking a question at Will Rogers State Park.
"The kid tugged on my arm and said, 'Mr. Vanderberg, do we have permission to be here?' Kids don't have a sense of ownership, so we try to encourage that by giving them trail work and community service projects. We tell them they have as much right to be here as anyone else."
The students also have the right to a higher education, which most never even considered before joining the Eco Club. For one senior, the annual trip to Yosemite stimulated a passion for the outdoors so intense that she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, becoming a double major in conservation studies and forestry. Prior to her Eco Club experience, she had no intention of going to college---and now hopes to get her master's in environmental management at Yale.
This summer, Vanderberg plans to help spread the Eco Club message to other schools. He is writing a grant to obtain Sierra Club funding for Dorsey High, where they hope to use the Crenshaw blueprint to introduce more students to the great outdoors.
"Kids who come to my programs are already planning trips without me," Vanderberg says. "They're becoming self-motivated, and I feel like it's making a difference. In the future, these kids will take their families. It makes me feel really good."
Web Extra:The July/August issue of Sierra magazine features the Crenshaw Eco Club and its trip to Yosemite National Park.