A love of nature becomes one man's calling

Jim Cummings was the youngest of seven children, all very close in age with two sets of twins in the family. Cost was a big factor in deciding where to attend college. Being that the Cummings were a military family, it made sense in 1968 for Jim to enroll at JSU in the ROTC program. The influence of his high school history teacher led him toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1972. Follow- ing graduation, he spent four years on active duty, serving in Korea and stateside in New York. Completing his tour of duty in the early 1980s, he married Rae Ann, and together they raised two children, a son and daughter. The family started a carpet cleaning and fabric restoration busi- ness until he sold the business in 2006. With the success of business ownership and grown children with children of their own, one would think it might be time for Jim and Rae Ann to retire and enjoy a simpler life.

Not yet. During his thirties and forties, Jim stayed active with his small suburban church working with youth and teaching Sunday school. Much of his work with youth involved nature, camping, hik- ing, canoeing, skiing, etc. When his kids graduated from college and relocated to Colorado, he began to volunteer with an urban ministry in Camden, N.J. called Ur- banPromise and its small high school, the UrbanPromise Academy. It was then that he began to realize that he was discovering his calling. “I never intended it to become what it has....I was only going to volunteer and take the kids on day outings once a month. That’s how things began in Sep- tember of 2004. It was natural for me to bring my love of nature and the outdoors and to begin an outdoor club for city teens,” says Cummings. So without much thought, at the age of fifty-three, he began full time ministry and began UrbanTrek- kers, an expeditionary learning program for the teens of UrbanPromise Ministries in Camden, N.J., one of the poorest and most violent cities in the United States.

According to the organization’s web site, UrbanTrekkers’ mission is to be an outdoor, hands-on, up close learning and mentoring program, where the world is our classroom. Cummings developed his program in New Jersey much like a program in Maine called Trekkers. In fact, once a year, he takes his UrbanTrekkers up to Maine to hang out and ocean kayak with rural teens from the mid-coast of Maine and to thank their founder, Don Carpenter, for his inspiration.

The UrbanTrekkers program takes students to places beyond their everyday lives; where history comes alive by going to the very places history was born. The Trekkers program included teaching environmental awareness, cross cultural experiences, leadership training and team building skills. It sets a high bar for character development and the pursuit of excellence. It seeks to bring meaning and purpose to the creation story and our role as caretakers of the earth. It seeks to go beyond the familiar to better understand what seems foreign and often strange. It teaches students that the environment will influence us, but we can choose what defines us.

Cummings says that the UrbanTrek- kers program believes “Education is about motivation-stimulating and awakening the child-like curiosity that is part of our very nature. Our trips are designed to generate high interest among UrbanPromise teens so that they are motivated to learn from the experience and carry that motivation into their studies. We offer youth opportunities to develop skills in team- work, decision-making, and making appropriate life choices. We believe the experiences we have during our teen years can help set the direction and paths that we follow the rest of our lives. We also see that every student can benefit from the support of a caring adult. We believe that youth need and want healthy relation- ships with positive adult role models and friends, people who believe in them and offer on-going support. We believe we can change lives and the world one student at a time.”

Is it making a difference? According to Rasheen, who started in the program as a freshman in high school and will be gradu- ating from college this May, the answer is YES! “When I left for college after graduat- ing from the UrbanPromise Academy, my biggest fear and concern was would I make it outside Camden and UrbanPromise.

No one in my family had ever gone to col- lege...most never finished high school. My greatest fear was that I would not feel like I belonged. I’m a kid from Camden, my father is in jail, my mother is addicted to crack, how could I ever feel like I belonged at college?” Rasheen tells Jim that because of the experiences that UrbanTrekkers provided him, he soon realized when he was around the other kids in the dorm or the student center that he too had stories to tell....not the typical stories about kids from Camden, but stories of travel and adventure. UrbanTrekkers and Jim Cum- mings gave Rasheen his stories but if you ask Jim Cummings, Rasheen has given him much more.

“At the age of sixty-one, I‘ve never been more alive emotionally, spiritually and intellectually”says Jim. “Seeing my students succeeding in college and the programs we have started that will outlast me makes it all worthwhile.” Jim and Rae Ann have a vision to create an UrbanTrek- kers of the Rockies to bring youth from the UrbanPromise Ministries in all cities to a summer camp wilderness experience in the Rocky Mountains. 

Retirement is still not even in his imagination. “I feel like I could do this until the sun sets,” says Jim. For youth like Rasheen and the other hundreds of students that have been a part of this program, let’s hope the sun doesn’t set for a very long time.