Up-hill climb: Muddy Sneakers screening event enables program’s success
Published 12:05 am Tuesday, January 24, 2023
Whoever said fundraising couldn’t be fun has never attended a Mountainfilm on Tour event.
Hosted by Muddy Sneakers, the Saturday event at Catawba College showcased culturally rich, adventure-packed and inspiring documentary films curated from the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colorado.
Muddy Sneakers has been organizing Mountainfilm on Tour for five years, working to awaken a deeply felt connection with the natural world in children. Organizers hope that connection inspires curiosity, stimulates learning and brings new life to classroom performance.
Muddy Sneakers’ mission envisions a world where every child has the opportunity to form a connection to nature and benefit from the wellness it provides. While hosting an inspiring collection of films, the show is also an opportunity to raise funds Muddy Sneakers can use to support fifth grade students and teachers in the community via experiential, outdoor science education.
Michelle Leonard is the Muddy Sneakers development officer. She’s based in the Piedmont area but works for the whole organization.
“Mountainfilm goes on tour, and different nonprofits or outdoor gear stores pick it up to host it as a fundraiser for their community,” Leonard said. “In North Carolina, we are the host. This year, we offer a showing in Asheville and one here in Salisbury.”
In Salisbury, Muddy Sneakers found a partner that has helped them keep more funds and funnel them into the organization’s mission.
“One of the things we love about Salisbury is Catawba College is such an amazing partner to us,” Leonard said. “They have 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 bolster attendance at the event.
For one attendee, Muddy Sneakers is particularly close to her heart.
“I am interested in the movie, but I am mainly here to support Muddy Sneakers as an organization,” said Rachel Bentley, a Catawba senior 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 am really supportive of the organization.”
As an intern, Bentley got to shadow some of the outdoor instructors and help write some of the program’s curriculum.
“The people are great and very supportive of students, but the work they do in our community is extremely important,” Bentley said. “They work with fifth grade students helping to get them outside and enjoy nature.”
According to Leonard, curating the curriculum aspect of Muddy Sneakers was integral to its success.
“When we got started, we were thinking about putting children onto the land to learn about it and where protected spaces are around their neighborhoods,” Leonard said. “As time went on, we realized we needed to incorporate this into a curriculum, so we base our standards on fifth grade science curriculums.”
Muddy Sneakers takes those fifth graders out six times a year.
“It’s not a field trip,” Leonard said. “It’s a full curriculum.”
Catawba College is one of many educational institutions in the area that have jumped on board with Muddy Sneakers’ mission. Nine schools are signed up for the program in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools 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 reaches more than 60,000 hours in outdoor spaces around North Carolina.
“We are growing and expanding,” Leonard said.
According to Leonard, Muddy Sneakers organizers see a trend with students after they complete their stint with the program.
“The children that go through Muddy Sneakers will go back to these sites that they learned about with their families after they are done,” Leonard said.
As Leonard pointed out, the lesson can be a reprieve for educators too.
“The teachers really like what we are doing,” Leonard said. “Not every fifth grade teacher is an expert in science. We show up with the instructor and the curriculum so that even when we aren’t there if they want to utilize these teaching techniques, they can.”
Muddy Sneakers Piedmont Region Director Cody Bliss added, “We are dedicated to ensuring that our fifth grade students in N.C. have the opportunity to foster an appreciation and make connections with outdoor spaces.”
According to Bliss, those connections are hard to quantify, but they can have life-long impacts.
“The reality is that we are working with a student, who may have their home or school adjacent to beautiful landscapes and have never stepped foot onto any of those places,” Bliss said. “Some may not know that they even exist. That is why we are here this evening.”
Bliss indicated that none of it would be possible with community partnerships.
“The only way we are able to do this work is through the generous support of the community of business sponsors, foundations, and individuals coming together for events like this,” Bliss said. “I am so grateful that Muddy Sneakers gets to be a part of what will hopefully be many Mountainfilm festivals in the future.”