In the brackish water of a canal in Port Isabel, about 25 miles northwest of Brownsville, are roughly two dozen kids, aged seven to seventeen, cooling off. They splash. They laugh. A few of the older boys leap from the second story of a boat dock. Standing on the dock supervising is Leon McNeil.
“Anthony, come in a little bit, and make sure those young’uns do the same,” McNeil calls out to an older boy as a boat passes by. When one of the smaller kids cuts his foot while swimming, McNeil calls him over for a look-see. The slice is not severe but clearly painful. “When you’re swimming around those pillars, you gotta watch out,” he says. “Those barnacles will cut you quick. But that salt water is also the best thing for it, so go wash it off. We can bandage you up later if we need to.”
The kid limps back to the water, and within a few minutes he’s swimming again like nothing happened.
“There’s going to be a lot of situations in life where things are going to be hard for these kids,” McNeil tells me afterward. “They need to understand that sometimes things are the way they are, and how they react is going to make all the difference in the world.”
For McNeil, the importance of young people regularly engaging with the outdoors cannot be overstated. Swimming, fishing, hiking, and hunting are where they can learn life lessons, build confidence, and increase their chances for long-term health and wellness. Kids like those playing in the water are members of a demographic—low-income persons of color—that is the least likely to have access to nature, which means they are denied chances for substantial mental and emotional development.
McNeil knows this personally. He grew up poor and in an unstable home in inner-city San Antonio. But his life changed when his high school football coach, Lyman Davis, took McNeil, then a senior at G. W. Brackenridge High, hunting for white-tailed deer. It was McNeil’s first time in the outdoors and first time seeing deer; until then he’d seen them only on television. That experience spurred in McNeil a curiosity about the outdoors.
Davis’s generosity also led McNeil to his life’s calling as a teacher, coach, and mentor to youth with backgrounds similar to his. Right after graduating from Abilene Christian University, he became a teacher and football coach at Cooper Middle School, in San Antonio. At the school he met Leticia, also a teacher and a coach, of track and volleyball. They both noticed that many of their student athletes were coming back from the weekends more stressed than when they left school on Friday.
“Some of them had to take care of younger siblings,” says Leticia, who retired from teaching two years ago. “Some of them partied. I just tried to offer something different every weekend so we could keep them out of trouble.” Leticia grew up in Port Isabel and was the daughter of a shrimp-boat captain, so she felt comfortable outdoors. Introducing her female students to outdoor adventures seemed like an easy option she could manage. Leon was doing something similar with the boys, and the two of them, both single at the time, brought the kids together at the end of the year for a camping trip, a reward for passing classes and staying out of trouble.
Soon the two were heading out more regularly with the kids—and also began dating. Leon and Leticia were married in 1998; had a son, LeeCharles, in 2000; and, in 2002, officially launched City Kids Adventures. Over the years, Leon also became an accomplished and highly sought-after quail-hunting guide. Today, CKA is well funded by 75 or so individuals, many of whom Leon guides on high-dollar quail hunts each fall. Ranch owners he works with often allow the kids to hunt or fish on their property.
Whereas many wilderness camps introduce kids to nature over a week or two, CKA exposes them over the course of several years. “We don’t believe in a one-and-done philosophy,” says Leon, who today teaches an outdoor-skills class at San Antonio Academy, a private boys’ school, during the week. “We firmly believe that the outdoors doesn’t have the impact it can unless the kids get outside regularly and come to know they can do some hard thing, whatever it is, over and over again. That’s confidence, and it just rolls over into every aspect of life.”
Gaining self-assurance isn’t the only benefit kids get when they experience nature. The outdoors has long been known to offer physical and mental health benefits. A massive study of almost one million kids from Denmark found that compared with children who grew up with ready access to green space, those who did not had up to a 55 percent higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and drug addiction. In the U.S., however, access to nature is often determined by class and, especially, race. A recent study from the Center for American Progress found that 67 percent of Texans of color live in nature-deprived areas while only 27 percent of white non-Latino Texans do. (The national averages are 74 and 23 percent, respectively.)
CKA offers trips on most weekends of the year for as many as three dozen out of the roughly 150 kids they work with annually—fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, hunting in South Texas, and camping in the Davis Mountains. CKA also organizes weeks-long summer tours for the older kids—road trips to Alaska, Niagara Falls, or southern Florida. But it’s not just an activity-filled vacation for the kids. They are required to tend to chores, such as cleaning the boat after a fishing trip, washing the kayaks, or painting a fence (if they’re hunting on someone’s property). For the kids who come from broken homes or hard backgrounds, it’s a dependable, supportive environment with a steadfast group of peers.
With so many backers, CKA has been able to purchase a fleet of kayaks and a catamaran for offshore fishing. CKA also owns the Port Isabel property—the site of the group’s most recent Labor Day weekend trip—which includes a two-story building on the canal leading into lower Laguna Madre. In addition to the outdoor activities, CKA is designed to be educational and a space for the kids to gain positive perspective on their lives.
As Leon knows, these opportunities are not something to be taken for granted. “The outdoors fundamentally changed my trajectory in life,” he says. “I know it can do the same for these kids.”
You don’t stumble into hunting or fishing. Someone introduces you. And Leon has made it his life’s mission to pass along the same blessing he once received. For more information about CKA or to donate, click here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Powerful Introduction to Nature for Kids Who Rarely See It.” Subscribe today.