Even though they may live a short distance from the beach or the mountains, there are some children in Los Angeles and Ventura counties who have never seen them. Learning Through Doing Adventures aims to change that by offering hands-on outdoor education and recreation for these disadvantaged youth as well as outreach opportunities for children from more comfortable backgrounds in Agoura Hills and nearby.
Founder and Agoura Hills resident Jonathan Dunker took his background in outdoor and special education, and combined the two for an enriching experience for inner-city children. Since 2006, more than 2,500 children with special needs or socioeconomic disadvantages from Los Angeles and Ventura counties have participated in what Dunker calls a unique opportunity.
"We deal with kids who have been in homeless shelters, foster care, and at-risk youth who may live in impoverished areas, and just kids who need some direction in their lives," Dunker said. "Realizing we live here in Agoura Hills or Malibu or Calabasas, but we're kind of isolated from the other areas, so let's try and bring these populations of kids together."
From sports to food preparation to team building exercises, the goal is to raise self esteem and open doors for further education opportunities.
In the past, the nonprofit organization has paired with West Hollywood Elementary School, along with HEART in Education, for field trips to Geoffrey's Restaurant in Malibu for an introduction to vocational opportunities, as well as field trips to Leo Carrillo State Beach to learn about tide pool animals.
The kids show a significant increase in knowledge about the city of Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains after participating in the trips, said Dunker.
Learning Through Doing Adventures board President Faye Berriman works alongside Dunker on outreach efforts, when children from Agoura Hills and surrounding areas go on field trips and outdoor adventures with kids from more difficult circumstances. Berriman said such interaction helps prepare the children to become active contributors to society.
"Jonathan is the whole engine behind it," said Berriman, who also works as the organization's bookkeeper. "He works very hard and loves the kids, and asks for very little in return. You see how little money we make, and it all goes to the kids and transportation costs and camp costs and it goes back to the kids."
Nearly half of the organization is dedicated to outdoor exploration and a summer camp. Learning Through Doing Adventures also collaborates with local organizations such as School on Wheels, Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles and Earth Protect. California state curriculum standards are incorporated into the programs as well.
"Through the experience of doing things and touching things and holding things, they learn to respect themselves and other people and plants," Berriman said. "From the moment they get there to when they leave, they'll say, 'Oh, I've never seen that. Now I know what it looks like.' "
Ruth Glass, Dunker's onetime boss and a former president of Learning Through Doing Adventures, praised him for creating a program that incorporates special needs children. Glass was the principal of private school Heavenly Odyssey in Las Flores Canyon when Dunker taught outdoor education there and adapted the curriculum for special education.
"Jonathan is somebody who can figure out how to teach anybody anything, and how to represent it in a way that kids can learn regardless of their learning style, physical limitation or otherwise," Glass said. "He's hardworking with amazing sense of humor. When you're all doing something that you say, 'OK, we can't do it anymore,' he'll slip in the humor and everybody takes that breath and says, 'OK, we can.' "
Glass has teamed up with Dunker again to pilot a program offering academic support for high school basketball players so that they have the necessary grade point average and test scores to go on to college and maybe continue on to a professional basketball career.
"It's incredibly innovative and very typical of what Jonathan tries to do," Glass said.
During the tough economy, Dunker said his nonprofit organization has struggled to stay afloat, but he finds so much joy working with these children that he's not giving up.
"As much as the economy tells you that there's no way you can sustain this type of program, you also have the kids out there who need these services and when there's a need, you find a way to make it work," he said. "This type of program can work if we can provide something that's not being done, something that's outside the box, something that really is novel in a system that is broken."
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