Ramaal Jones wasn’t born an outdoorsman. He grew up in suburban uptown New Orleans, seemingly worlds away from the lakes and rivers of Louisiana. Both of his parents had been raised in the city, and neither cared much for or knew much about nature. Family vacations didn’t include fishing trips or camping trips. Sports meant basketball and football—not angling.
All of that changed when Jones was in 4th Grade. That’s when he and his classmates got a visit from LOOP NOLA.
The Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program (LOOP) NOLA is a non-profit organization dedicated to introducing the youth of Greater New Orleans to the wondrous Louisiana state parks, waterways, and wilderness, both inside and outside the city limits. LOOP staff and volunteers took Jones and his classmates to the lakes hidden behind the city’s parks. The kids swam, canoed, and fished for the first time. For Jones, it was a baptism of sorts.
“LOOP showed us that you don’t have to go outside of the city to get into the outdoors,” says Jones. “You don’t have to go far to experience nature. It was a new world for me. And I discovered that I loved it.”
Now 18, Jones looks back and realizes that learning to fish, in particular, gave him more than a passion for the outdoors. It endowed him with valuable life lessons.
“Fishing challenges you to do better,” says Jones, who admits he snagged his hook on his shirt the first time he tried to cast his line. “It’s challenging. If you don’t get a fish this time, let me throw out a little further and see if I can get one. You don’t give up. It shows you that no matter what, you have to endure.”
That’s a valuable lesson for New Orleans kids, many of whom do not have the resources that Jones had. Kids with a disadvantaged background may not know where the closest body of water is or have the means or transportation to get there. They may not know what gear they need or where to find it. Their parents are often busy working to make ends meet, and have no time to take a fishing trip—if they ever had the opportunity to learn to fish.
“I’ve experienced the neighborhoods here and seen the way a lot of the youth are growing up,” says LOOP executive director Jonathan Skvarka. “I’ve been inside their homes and seen what they are up against. And I’ve seen improved youth outcomes for the future through the outdoors.”
The heart of the organization is still with its founder, Dan Forman, an urban New Englander who, as a troubled child, found respite and direction through outdoor summer camps. Forman fell in love with the culture of New Orleans when passing through. He put down roots and, in 2004, started LOOP to help the city’s youth find a path through the wild, as he had.
“I’ve been inside their homes and seen what they are up against. And I’ve seen improved youth outcomes for the future through the outdoors.”
Forman passed away in 2012, but LOOP has maintained its model of outdoor education, incorporating classroom subjects like math, history, science, and language arts into the excursions. And through ropes courses and other physical activities, he sought to impart other lessons, like teamwork, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and self-esteem. The organization partners with local schools to get students out of the city at least seven or eight times each year. Fifty-five percent of the participants are from schools where a majority of students receive free or reduced-price meals. Some have mental, developmental, or physical disabilities. Almost all are newcomers to the outdoors and are at least a little intimidated at first, feeling like they don’t belong.
And, as Jones said, fishing is a great educational tool.
Fishing is about small, incremental accomplishments. Taking that first step onto the boat. Going out into the open water. Baiting your hook. Your first smooth cast. And fishing also teaches patience.
“Social and emotional development is hard to foster in the classroom,” says Skvarka. “It’s hard to learn perseverance. And in our fast-paced, always-connected lifestyle, we’re always on our phones waiting for the next thing to happen. We’re really impatient. With fishing, you have to wait for that carrot at the end of the stick. You can go out five times and only catch a fish once.”
Figuring out just how to land that one fish teaches basic problem-solving. Which bait seems to be working, and which isn’t getting a nibble? Is it time to move on to another spot? Do I need a new plan of attack?
“We guide them,” says Skvarka, “but they have to figure it out on their own. We want them to have ownership.”
There’s also the escape into nature. Many of these children have been through developmental trauma and other issues at home. Three hours in a boat or on the dock can, at least temporarily, make those problems feel smaller and far away. They also become aware of their surroundings, giving them the incentive to respect and protect the environment that offered them solace.
And then, of course, there’s the delight and triumph that comes with finally catching that fish.
“It gives you a rush,” says Jones. “And it’s good for your pride.”
“You’re instilling in them the love of nature. You’re changing their lives forever.”
From the moment he landed his first fish, Jones was hooked. Even after he aged out of his school’s LOOP programming after 7th Grade, he wanted desperately to go back. Last year, he petitioned his high-school faculty to partner with LOOP, a program that will begin for Jones and his 12th Grade classmates next semester. And this summer, Jones will be an ambassador intern at one of LOOP’s summer camps, going out and helping other kids bait their hooks, cast their lines, and catch the love of fishing.
“I love showing them new things, the same things that LOOP showed us,” says Jones. “You’re instilling in them the love of nature. You’re changing their lives forever.”
“LOOP showed us that you don’t have to go outside of the city to get into the outdoors,"
“It gives you a rush, and it’s good for your pride.”
“You don’t give up. It shows you that no matter what, you have to endure.”
NOLA Kids Learn Life Skills