Climbing Up the Hill: Mud Sneaker Projection Event Enables Program Success
Posted at 12:05 PM Tuesday, January 24, 2023
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Whoever said fundraising can’t be fun has never attended a Mountainfilm on Tour event.
Hosted by Muddy Sneakers, Saturday’s event at Catawba College showcased culturally rich, adventurous and inspiring documentaries selected from the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado.
Muddy Sneakers has organized Mountainfilm on Tour for five years, working to awaken a deeply felt connection to the natural world in children. Organizers hope the connection inspires curiosity, stimulates learning and breathes new life into classroom performance.
Muddy Sneakers’ mission envisions a world where every child has the opportunity to connect with nature and benefit from the well-being it provides. While hosting an inspiring collection of films, the show is also a fundraiser that Muddy Sneakers can use to support fifth-grade students and teachers in the community through experiential outdoor science education.
Michelle Leonard is responsible for the development of Muddy Sneakers. She is based in the Piedmont area, but works for the entire organization.
“Mountainfilm goes on tour and different non-profits or outdoor gear stores pick it up to put on as a fundraiser for their community,” Leonard said. “In North Carolina, we are the home team. This year we have a performance in Asheville and one here in Salisbury.”
In Salisbury, Muddy Sneakers found a partner that helped them retain more funds and direct them toward the organization’s mission.
“One of the things we love about Salisbury is that Catawba College is such an amazing partner for us,” Leonard said. “They really stood up for us. They let us use their auditorium for free tonight, which is a huge expense.
Catawba College also purchased student tickets to increase attendance at the event.
For one contestant, Muddy Sneakers is especially close to her heart.
“I’m interested in the movie, but I’m mainly here to support Muddy Sneakers as an organization,” said Rachel Bentley, a senior at Catawba studying environment and sustainability who hopes to be an environmental educator after she graduates. “I worked with Muddy Sneakers as an intern last year and really support the organization.”
As an intern, Bentley got to observe some of the outdoor instructors and help them write some of the program’s curriculum.
“The people are great and very supportive of the students, but the work they do in our community is extremely important,” Bentley said. “They work with fifth graders, helping them get outside and enjoy nature.”
According to Leonard, curating the curriculum aspect of Muddy Sneakers is integral to its success.
“When we started, we thought about putting kids on the ground to learn about it and where there are protected spaces around their neighborhoods,” Leonard said. “Over time, we realized we needed to put that into a curriculum, so we’re basing our standards on fifth-grade science curricula.”
Muddy Sneakers brings these fifth graders out six times a year.
“This is not a field trip,” Leonard said. “It’s a full curriculum.”
Catawba College is one of many area educational institutions that have joined Muddy Sneakers’ mission. Nine schools are enrolled in the program in the Rowan-Salisbury school district.
“That’s a lot for us in one county,” Leonard said. “We have a lot of support here.”
The program serves about 3,100 students. It has logged more than 60,000 hours outdoors around North Carolina.
“We’re growing and expanding,” Leonard said.
According to Leonard, Muddy Sneakers organizers are seeing a trend among students after they complete their time with the program.
“Kids who go through Muddy Sneakers will come back to these sites they learned about with their families after they’re done,” Leonard said.
As Leonard pointed out, the lesson can be a reprieve for educators as well.
“The teachers really like what we do,” Leonard said. “Not every fifth grade teacher is a science expert. We show up with the instructor and the curriculum, so even when we’re not there, if they want to use those teaching techniques, they can.”
Muddy Sneakers Piedmont Regional Director Cody Bliss added, “We are dedicated to ensuring that our fifth grade students in North Carolina have the opportunity to foster an appreciation and connection to the outdoors.”
According to Bliss, these connections are difficult to quantify, but they can have a lifelong impact.
“The reality is we’re working with a student whose home or school may be near beautiful scenery and has never set foot in one of those places,” Bliss said. “Some may not even know they exist. That’s why we’re here tonight.”
Bliss pointed out that none of this would be possible with community partnerships.
“The only way we can do this work is through the generous support of the community from business sponsors, foundations and people who come together for events like this,” Bliss said. “I am so grateful that Muddy Sneakers is becoming a part of what we hope will be many Mountainfilm festivals in the future.”