Using the outdoors to change lives: How LOOP Nola is making a positive impact on New Orleans Youth

The Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program, aka LOOP, is a non-profit organization founded in 1997 that allows everyone, but mainly New Orleans’ youth population, to experience the outdoors through ropes courses, fishing, canoeing, and more. The organization’s founder, Dan Forman, started LOOP to combine the two things he loved most: the New Orleans community and the outdoors. Forman believed that the disadvantaged youth in New Orleans deserved to have exposure to the outdoors and that facilitating this would have many benefits on children’s physical and mental health. As the outdoor community has been historically privileged and predominantly white, Forman and LOOP sought to change the wealth and race disparities that often occured in the outdoor community. Although Forman sadly passed in 2012, his legacy survives through incredible staff and through his life-changing organization. Even after his passing, he continues to have a positive impact on the youth of New Orleans.

LOOP’s logo. (Photo by LOOP Nola).

We were lucky to have the opportunity to learn more about LOOP by sitting down with the current executive director, Heather West. “Our mission is to provide positive and life-changing outdoor experiences for children and youth in greater New Orleans,” West told us when we asked her to elaborate on LOOP. West, having a background in outdoor education working with Outward Bound, explained that her favorite part about coming to work was not only the outdoor component but also getting to see the results of her work with children every day. Unlike Outward Bound, which works with all children in the greater New Orleans area, LOOP has a target demographic of kids from marginalized communities.

LOOP’s Executive director, Heather West. (Photo by LOOP Nola).

“In the New Orleans area, there is an income disparity that lines up pretty well with a race disparity,” West told us. While there is no clear-cut line, there is much overlap between families of color and underserved communities in the New Orleans area. Many of the white families in New Orleans have the means to immerse their kids in the outdoors through summer camps and family vacations, while many people of color don’t receive the same exposure or experiences. West repeatedly emphasized how the local public schools are LOOP’s main priority and explained that LOOP ensures that at least half of the children they work with come from marginalized communities. Of the 2,983 participants they worked with in the 2021/2022 school year, about 1,306 were from low-income families. The goal of serving low-income families upholds Forman’s original purpose for starting LOOP which was to get the children of New Orleans to play outside and experience the same life-enhancing experiences he encountered from immersion in the outdoors.

LOOP’s Founder, Dan Forman, with some LOOP participants. (Photo by LOOP Nola).

“He realized New Orleans kids don’t really play outside and saw the problem with that,” West explained when discussing Forman’s reasoning for creating LOOP. Forman, a New England native, sought to cultivate the same care and appreciation for the environment he had grown up with within the children of New Orleans. West further expanded on LOOP’s origins, telling us it was initially a New Orleans Recreation Development Commission Program (NORDC). Shortly after, LOOP transitioned into a State Parks program, and it was during this time that Forman sadly passed. Amidst the Louisiana budget crisis, the state defunded many non-essential programs, including state park programs. While it looked like the program would be permanently dispersed, friends of Forman and those who believed in LOOP’s impact were able to save the organization by turning it into a non-profit.

Those who had faith in LOOP have been proven correct, as the mental and physical benefits of exposing youth to the outdoors are seemingly limitless. Not only does immersion in the outdoors help children become more physically and environmentally aware, but it also impacts the maturation of social and emotional skills, educational success, and communication growth. Exposure to outdoor activities has been linked to an increase in a child’s confidence, self-esteem, sense of responsibility, and care for nature. Every one of these emerging benefits helps uphold Forman’s legacy and his commitment to the outdoors.

Two young boys enjoying the outdoors by canoeing. (Photo by LOOP Nola).

Supporting LOOP in any possible contributes to the future and development of the city. Support will also help the program get closer to achieving its goal, which is for every urban child in New Orleans to experience the opportunities of the outdoors. Engaging in LOOP and its programs guarantees the cultivation of a more well-rounded urban youth — physically, emotionally, and academically. Supporting LOOP also includes supporting its incredible staff who work tirelessly to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to their slogan “everyone belongs outdoors.” These dedicated individuals are constantly working to make the outdoors a more inclusive and welcoming place for all.

Follow this link to hear our interview with Heather West and to learn more about LOOP!


This piece was edited by Eliza Griggs as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 


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