By David R. Shorey, East County Program Manager, Institute for Public Strategies

Photos courtesy of Outdoor Outreach

April 4, 2022 (Eastern San Diego County) – Now that spring has arrived in Eastern County and our excellent weather is getting even better, the desire to get outside is high, especially among our young people. This is the perfect time to make a positive connection to the theme of outdoor recreation among our young people. Getting outside and keeping busy with healthy activities can help kids achieve a natural high instead of turning to alcohol and drugs to pass the time. It really works. It’s not just an anti-drug slogan. Exercise triggers the brain and can elevate serotonin and dopamine levels and increase endorphins. All of this contributes to an overall feeling of well-being, happiness and euphoria, while reducing stress, anxiety and low self-esteem.

The average age of a person who tries alcohol and drugs for the first time is 13 years old. Nine out of 10 addictions begin in adolescence. This is why it is important to get the message across to students from primary school through middle school and high school.

Outdoor awareness

Since 1999, the San Diego-based Outdoor Outreach Association has empowered more than 17,000 young people to explore their world, cultivate their belonging and discover what they are capable of. Outdoor Outreach connects youth from communities impacted by social inequality with transformative outdoor experiences. By taking advantage of green spaces and natural resources close to home, participants can discover their strengths and make meaningful connections with positive peers and mentors. Each year, more than 2,000 young people participate in adventure-oriented programs such as hiking, surfing, kayaking and rock climbing. Their vision is an outdoors for all that inspires and supports healthy and vibrant communities.

Annie Sawyer is Senior Director of Development at Outdoor Outreach. “For the young people we work with – who have always been and continue to be affected by things like poverty, homelessness, neighborhood violence, substance abuse, etc. – connecting to outdoor spaces can be transformational” , Sawyer said. “Every opportunity to bike, surf, kayak or rock climb with Outdoor Outreach is so much more than a fun day outdoors with their friends. It’s a chance to explore their world and discover new strengths they never knew they were capable of.

Outdoor Outreach offers programs and collaboration in East County through Chaparral High, Crest Elementary, El Cajon Valley High, Mount Miguel High, and Juvenile Court Community Schools in El Cajon, La Mesa, and Rancho San Diego.

“For some, it’s a chance to get away from the very adult responsibilities or traumas they face at home, and just be a kid for a while,” Sawyer said. “Most importantly, it’s a chance to connect with a community of trusted adult friends and mentors who believe in them and show them they matter.”

Natural high

Another San Diego-based nonprofit working in East County, Natural High, also has a mission to inspire and empower young people to find their natural high and develop the skills and courage to live their lives well. According to Natural High, “It is not a single thing, but rather a combination of factors that ultimately leads young people to have the courage to avoid drug and alcohol abuse.” Their curriculum at Steele Canyon High and elsewhere focuses on protective factors, giving young people a well-rounded skill set that’s rooted in the latest research in drug prevention.

The outdoors offers many different ways to exercise such as biking, gardening, golf (walking, not horseback riding), jogging, tennis, walking, pickle ball, and gardening, among others. There are also several opportunities for indoor exercise such as dancing, housework, aerobics, yoga, and weightlifting. Exercise has been proven to increase energy levels, strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure, improve muscle tone and strength, and reduce body fat.

What’s so great about outdoor recreation is that it’s an activity that almost any member of the family can do together. Family hikes, an outing to the beach or to a nearby park, or even a bike ride can serve as moments of bonding with the family. This in turn creates better family bonds which can help reduce the desire to use drugs or alcohol in young people.

County Park and Recreation

The San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation is a helpful resource for East County residents. In addition to listings of all of the county’s parks, the website also has a listing of recreational and sports programs, including the SD Nights program. SD Nights is a free program designed to provide children ages 10-18 with safe places to recreate after school, during critical hours.

Whether it’s hiking, biking, sports, camping, or the myriad other things you can do in East County, have fun and be well.

IPS works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequality, protect health and improve quality of life. IPS has a vision for safe, secure, vibrant and healthy communities where everyone can thrive. To learn more about IPS East County, follow us at or by clicking on the links to our social media platforms: IPS East County Facebook, IPS East County Twitter, East County Youth Instagram Coalition.

As a partner of Live Well San Diego, IPS and its programs, such as the prevention of substance use disorders, is an example of an organization that demonstrates through its work and action that we are building better health, centered on security.


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