LOOP NOLA-Photo by Nathan Tucker

LOOP NOLA participants engage in outdoor activities, such as canoeing at Joe Brown Park.

While defying the notion that New Orleans is not an outdoorsy city, local nonprofit LOOP NOLA is helping youth from low-income families gain confidence and achieve academic success. The organization offers three educational nature-based programs set in scenic locations in and around New Orleans.

“We provide positive, life-changing outdoor experiences to youth in Greater New Orleans,” says Jonathan Skvarka, executive director of LOOP NOLA. “We are trying to use the outdoors as a tool to develop social, emotional and academic skills.”

Through LOOP NOLA’s Partner Programs, kids undertake rope challenges and go on fishing, hiking, canoeing and overnight camping trips.

“While they are canoeing, they are also learning about the importance of communication, being a leader, self-control and self-awareness and things like that,” Skvarka says.

Participants in the Outdoor Adventure Club Program plan monthly outdoor adventures, elect leadership teams and train for a summer adventure in North Carolina.

Members of the Outdoor Ambassador Summer Internship Program learn how to run a youth group by assisting with LOOP NOLA’s summer camp sessions.

LOOP NOLA partners with 30 public and private schools, summer camps and nonprofits. Participants range from 6 to 19 years old and typically come from low-income families. Some have physical or mental disabilities.

“Last year we had nearly 2,800 children and youth do our programs,” Skvarka says. “Our goal for this upcoming year is to have 3,000 students.”

He also is focused on making LOOP NOLA more sustainable by decreasing its reliance on grants and sponsorships. One way he’s doing this is through LOOP NOLA’s Corporate Team Building Program for professionals. Fees from the program benefit LOOP NOLA’s youth programs.

In addition to building social and leadership skills, Skvarka believes being outdoors has a positive effect on kids’ mental health.

“It can relax these students who struggle with a lot of stress. It helps them put down those barriers that don't allow them to develop social skills,” he says, adding that being immersed in nature is fun. “When you're canoeing or camping, you're learning — but it doesn't feel like you're at school.”