Last week, I had the fortune to meet with Mac Levine, Founder and Executive Director of Concrete Safaris, an organization that “empowers youth to be healthy leaders through green exercise programs that enrich the mind, body, community and environment.” Her group is growing fast in the NYC area and gaining momentum with strong support from local communities.

We are excited to introduce Concrete Safaris program at Ampleen. Below are some questions I asked Mac about how her organization got started, the successes and challenges she has experienced so far, and the role that government will play in Concrete Safaris in the future.

What motivated you to start Concrete Safaris?

Mac: I was interested in reducing health disparities in East Harlem and asked children how they wanted to improve the health of their community. We started with planting flowers, at their suggestion. Now, just four years later, we have the largest children’s gardens on public housing property.

Mac Levine, Founder and Executive Director

I am motivated by the children’s insistence on living in a better world. They have so many ideas, and I really enjoy the process of watching them learn how to make their ideas a reality. From gardening, we expanded to offer swimming, running, cycling, games, fishing, hiking, and more – all by the kids voting on how they wanted to stay engaged.

What is Concrete Safaris’ ultimate goal?

Mac: To grow healthy leaders in the urban environmental health movement. Our kids live in the projects with limited opportunities for decision making, and we teach them how to both make decisions and stick with them.

You have developed many initiatives around kids and health. What has been your biggest success? Also, what have been some of your challenges?

Mac: I am really proud to be a part of something that is bigger than my little seed of an idea that kids can and will improve their health when in a supportive environment. They are gaining so much confidence cycling on the East River, transforming the environment where they live, meeting personal and group fitness goals, and really growing as a team.

One challenge has been not having enough staff to support the growing demand for our services.

It takes a village to raise a child, they say, but it is hard to build a strong community in the city. What are the challenges that you face when building good communities for kids? Which of your efforts can have the most positive impact on the community?

Mac: I disagree that it is hard to build a strong community. We work in East Harlem. There are huge networks of people who have known each other through generations in some cases. What we have leveraged is the children’s relationships with their community to build interest in outdoor exercise and education by offering fun, child-fueled programs that spread by word-of-mouth.

Kids who are not enrolled in our programs show up to our programs just to participate when they see us outside. That is because they are connected through a network of other children in their housing development.

Any outdoor programs have had the most positive effect on the community. People of all ages ask to participate because they see our City Surfers doing good things.

What school and communities have you partnered with to set an example?

Mac: We partner with PS 102 and Union Settlement to provide a year-round program called City Surfers. We also work with kids from a variety of schools and community centers in East Harlem for our Green Exercise Days, with full or half-day field trips to our gardens, on bicycles, or on the street.

Although healthier lifestyles for kids have recently been promoted heavily by the city and through efforts such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, I can imagine it can still be difficult to convince parents and schools, especially if there are extra costs involved. How do you do this?

Mac: We are fun! And our programs are free or by donation. We have a waiting list of kids who want to enroll. It was difficult to establish a presence at each location, but once everyone was seeing success in the children, we were able to grow. Schools are happy to see their kids active, more focused, and engaged in educational activities.

Now that Obama has been re-elected, the general sentiment is that Democrats are more likely to support policies that promote healthy environments for kids. Should we expect more from government, or is that a misperception?

Mac: I think we can expect more opportunities for programs that transform the built environment. We are seeing that the past 30 years of research are finally reaching the attention of funders and policy makers.

In addition to government, you would need more endorsement from private sectors to get more programs funded. It may not easy to convince companies to get involved. What is your general feeling about corporations’ recent involvement, and what is your plan to get them more involved?

Mac: Our corporate involvement has gradually increased since inception, and we see only growth in this area. Employees want to volunteer outdoors and with kids. They want visible change. They volunteer to work with our kids for green exercise days. We are also starting our first annual community service event and adventure race in September 2013, and we’ll be looking for corporate-challenge partners.

What is your hope and outlook for 2013?

Mac: In 2013, we will work with 1,200 children and 300 family members. We will be beautifying over an acre of property in Jefferson Houses. We will start our first annual outdoor event. It’s pretty much going to rock!

There are many organizations promoting healthier lifestyle for kids outside of NYC. Are you currently working with them? Do you consider any collaboration with these organizations?

Mac: PS 102 has won healthy schools award from the NYC Dept. of Health. Union Settlement is also interested in seeing their students improve their health. We partnered with NYRR for our PlayStreet on East 113th St. this year. They led a running station, while we led cycling and games. NYC Parks brought the Skate Mobile and their game truck. We partner with CLIMB for Hike the Heights, and our kids loved that event! We also partner with Mount Sinai to conduct an evaluation of our program with one of their environmental health fellows. We collaborate with a lot of agencies, actually.

And finally, what is one way that people who are interested in your programs can get involved and make an impact?

Mac: We are looking for the following:

1. Cycling volunteers to join us Monday or Wednesday afternoons and gardening volunteers for Saturday or after-work events

2. Interns to help with the back end of the organization

3. Board members to grow our organization

4. Funders to support our core programs

5. Sponsors to support our community service event and adventure race weekend

6. Gardening supplies and outdoor clothing

7. “Likes” for Concrete Safaris on Facebook to stay up-to-date on what our City Surfers are doing and other ways to get involved.

Talking to Mac, I realized that building a strong community is possible and actually FUN! Her effort started with small grass-roots projects, but their objectives were clear, and the outcome was visible, and Mac gained strong support from the community. I hope that Concrete Safaris realizes the next stage in their further development in 2013, and I recommend that our readers get involved in this program!