Reconnecting kids with faith, nature and life skills: Group aims to help pre-teens and teens put down phones, rediscover nature
A small group of dedicated volunteers has been working tirelessly behind the scenes on an exciting new project aimed at helping pre-teens and teenagers disconnect with their phones and instead connect with the restorative powers of nature and a Christian faith, all while learning life and survival skills along the way.
An idea that blossomed
Ozark Outdoor Adventures is an organization that began as a seed of an idea many years ago in Gainesville-area resident David Bushner, who wanted to find a way to teach children, including his own two kids, Savannah and Maverick, how to be self-sufficient and enjoy God’s beauty in nature.
“I wanted to see kids connect with nature so they could learn to live without technology, become more physically active and learn the values of Christian living through outdoor activities,” Bushner said. “I’ve thought about the concept of teaching kids for quite a few years, but I was particularly motivated when smartphones and gaming devices became dominant, and I saw how kids were starting to depend on them.”
The idea continued to swirl in his head until 2019, when “God catapulted the vision into a reality” by bringing Dave and Sandy Morgan into his life, Bushner said. The couple had moved to the Gainesville area from Minnesota.
“[Dave Bushner] worked construction on a pole building we had built,” Sandy told the Times. “We learned over many, many cups of coffee that we shared a passion for Jesus Christ and for teaching kids about self-sufficiency. He talked about his vision, and I told him I had the organizational skills to put it into action.”
Sandy said she and her husband had heard stories after moving here of problems that plague many families in Ozark County and the surrounding area – hardships like drugs, unemployment, limited job training and generational cycles of poverty and addiction. The pain these things caused families broke their hearts.
“So we’d been looking for a way, through God’s leading hand, to help the youth in the area overcome those hurdles,” Sandy said.
Bushner and the Morgans spent hours brainstorming the project and what it could mean for Ozark County’s youth – and ultimately for future generations who live here.
“The more we talked with Dave, the clearer the picture got of how we could help,” Sandy said.
Bushner and the Morgans continued to chat with other friends and neighbors about the project, and in January 2020, Bushner, the Morgans and two other community members, Doris Sayles and Kelly Forrest, officially launched Ozark Outdoor Adventures.
The founders, who currently also serve as the organization’s board members, have been meeting frequently since that time, continuing to plan and shape the group’s mission and organization’s vision for the future. Doris Sayles has since left the group.
A mission to help
What does the group hope to do to help young people?
“First and foremost, we want to bring them to a personal relationship with Jesus. But also, we want to help them know how to incorporate Christ into their daily lives, as well as learning how to live without technology,” Sandy said. “We want to equip them with skills so they have options in life for living and working.”
After much discussion and a shared goal in mind, the group agreed on a single mission:
“…to reach young people for Christ by teaching them life skills, compassion and self-sufficiency. We do this by the development of Christian values, outdoor and farming skills and teamwork. We are building foundations for youth in fifth through 12th grades that will last a lifetime and equip them with the tools they need to not only survive – but thrive in the community.”
Three pathways: nature, workforce and life
As the group continued to brainstorm how to make the mission a reality, they envisioned a roadmap with three distinct paths of development: nature, workforce and life.
“The program is set up to last about a year and has three main groups: nature, workforce and life,” Sandy told the Times. “Under each group are subcategories. For each of the subcategories, there will be three to five activities or events.”
Similar to children’s scouting organizations, participants in Ozark Outdoor Adventures will work to earn badges and recognition by completing different tasks or learning about different subjects.
The group says they are currently working to write the program book, which will outline all the projects distinctly, but they already have a general understanding of what they hope to accomplish.
“All participants start with the nature pathway,” Bushner said. “In that path, kids work on projects focused on things like water-catchment systems, animal husbandry, plant and animal identification, building shelter, survival skills, water purification, growing food, food preservation and other topics of self-sufficiency.”
The group members say that in addition to the nature pathway, the participants can work through elements in the workforce and life skills pathways too.
The workforce path would include subsets such as job skill training, job preparation and work alternatives.
“One of our first activities will be the groundbreaking for our garden, which will include specific garden prep and planting skills,” Sandy said. “Then we’ll be learning about personal finances by giving them mock money to earn and spend. There will be an eight-hour, hands-on training about vehicle maintenance. We’ll role-play bullying situations, and we’re planning on working with the Ozark County Drug Task Force for work in drug prevention.”
Participants will learn about different careers including bookkeeping, carpentry skills, mechanical skills or skills like welding, fabrication, industrial maintenance or other skills that are needed in manufacturing occupations. The group hopes to have participants visit the GOCAT (Greater Ozarks Center for Advanced Technology) school within Missouri State University-West Plains, which trains college students in advanced technical skills that can be applied to factory or manufacturing jobs in the area. Alternative occupations, such as homesteading, self-employment and apprenticeships will also be discussed.
Students will prepare for life after high school with instruction on how to construct a resume, fill out job applications and have a successful, confident job interview with a potential future employer.
“In each path, we hope to meet some common objectives,” Forrest said. “We want to talk to kids about how Jesus relates to the topic, develop their basic skills, help them use all of their senses and help kids think about how the skills they are learning can be used in service to others.”
A place for the dream to grow
While the educational and spiritual elements of the project have been developed through the last couple of years, the team members have also been working to hammer out the logistical and physical needs of the group.
A 4-acre plot of land, which the organization has dubbed “The Farm,” was donated by the family of the late Bob Goodwyn, who died in December 2019.
Goodwyn, a good friend of Bushner, was always supportive of events and organizations that aimed to teach kids about Christ, he said.
“It was his priority. He envisioned having a huge table where a community meal would be served at least one day a week, and the conversation would center around the Lord,” Bushner said. “We have plans to do this, starting with kids.”
The property, located in a wooded area off Highway 181 near Gainesville High School, will serve as the base for Ozark Outdoor Adventures. The property includes a large house near the center of the area that, unfortunately, is no longer usable.
“When we were given the house it initially had water damage,” Sandy said.
Bushner bought windows to replace the leaky ones in the house and dropped them off at the property in preparation for future installation.
But vandals destroyed the new windows – along with the rest of the house, breaking out existing window panes, spray-painting grafitti on the interior and exterior walls and generally destroying the structure. With frequent rain and no windows, mold began to spread.
Because the house sits off the main highway in a fairly secluded area, the group members didn’t realize the damage had been done until it was too late.
“Most of the vandalism has happened in the last year,” Sandy said. “It took awhile to get the title transferred to our organization. By that time, so much damage was done, we concluded it wasn’t worth salvaging, other than some building materials if we can.”
A vision for ‘The Farm’
At its completion, the Ozark Outdoor Adventures farm will likely include a large building where workshops and meetings can be held, an extensive garden plot, a chicken coop, animal stalls and trails where students can have engaging, hands-on experiences with nature.
That dream will take a lot of hard work from many dedicated hands. Volunteers and financial donors are needed and welcomed with open arms, the group says.
“We’d love to work with both individual community members and local area churches who would like to participate,” Sandy said.
The group says “phase one” of making The Farm into a usable space involves demolishing the existing home and cleaning up the property. The group estimates it will take approximately $2,500 to complete the first step in the process.
“We’re also in need of a dumpster and will set up a number of clean-up days, which will involve picking up trash, salvaging usable materials and taking down the house,” Sandy said.
The next step, phase two, will include drawing up new plans for a building and confirming that the utilities – water, sewer and electricity – can be run to the building and are in working order.
The last step, phase three, will include ground preparation and constructing the main building.
Sandy said sometime last year she’d created a cost estimate that showed the group would need approximately $63,000 in cash and $50,000 to $75,000 worth of building materials to complete the project, but building prices have risen steeply since that time.
“The number is always changing,” she said.
Materials for the specific classes and other programs are estimated to cost around $750.
Other costs, volunteer opportunities
The group is required to purchase liability insurance that will cover the organization if an accident or incident occurs on the property or at one of Ozark Outdoor Adventure’s events. The cost estimate for insurance is $2,000.
Another important factor for the group is marketing support.
“We’re looking for a volunteer who is familiar with social media, text messaging and other ways of getting information to people,” Sandy said. “They’ll help us communicate dates, events and fun activities to both our participants and volunteers.”
Those with a green thumb are encouraged to help out with the property’s garden plot and food forest.
“A large part of Ozark Outdoor Adventures is teaching kids how to plant, grow and harvest their own foods,” Bushner said. “We’re doing this by having them plant both a garden and a food forest, a space that mimics the ecosystem and doesn’t have to be replanted each year.”
The group estimates that they’ll need around $850 for the garden and food forest, along with organic, heirloom seeds, fruit trees, top soil and black dirt and gardening tools.
The organization is designated as a 501c3 non-profit organization, and cash donations are tax deductible. Donations can be mailed to Ozark Outdoor Adventures, 898 County Road 511, Gainesville, MO 65655.
For more information, visit www.ozarkoutdooradventures.org. Volunteer forms and donation information can be found under the “Donate” tab on the website.