Youth program builds community

11/23/2016

While our nation was busy fulfilling its fine democratic tradition of elections last week, 54 local middle school students came together for what has become their own cherished November tradition: a retreat to their local national park. This month, Point Reyes National Seashore Association hosted its third annual Seashore Youth Ambassadors Project at the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center, welcoming West Marin School for four days and three nights of off-the-grid fun, learning and connection with the natural world. 

The days were led by an inspired team of naturalists who love working with young people and were supported by the school’s classroom, art and music teachers. Dedicated parent volunteers anchored the kitchen and provided additional support and supervision. Finally, the program was rounded out by special guest rangers from the seashore. 

One of the goals of the Ambassadors program is to foster stronger ties between National Park Service staff and the community. This goal is nested in PRNSA’s larger mission of inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards. We know from years of experience that the first step in teaching children to care for the land is helping them fall in love with it. Whether it’s the breathtaking vistas, the pound of the ocean or the mysterious bobcat that frequents the camp when it is still, the seashore offers so much to love.

A 2011 Obama administration report found that a key reason why young people feel less inclined to spend time exploring parks is because they don’t have an adult to guide and inspire them. This program fills this need, and offers a natural way to get to know that park staff who lead a variety of hands-on lessons. In addition to encouraging these positive relationships, students learn about career possibilities in the park service and conservation. Over the years, we’ve introduced students to a park biologist, a botanist, an archaeologist, a search and rescue ranger, a fire fighter, a trails crew supervisor, an engineer, a sustainability ranger, an interpretive ranger, a community outreach officer and a superintendent. 

When I arrived the last evening of the camp, the classroom teachers reported how especially important time spent in the park was for the children this year. “These kids get that they are impacted by this election,” music teacher Dave Whitney said. Latinos make up 56 percent of the student body at West Marin School, and they have felt the sting of presidential campaign rhetoric. While students were tucked far away from the election buzz, they worked on the skills they will need to face the concrete uncertainty that the new administration will bring. 

The morning after the election, the mood was a little somber. Staff called for a “circle of counsel” to update the students on the results and to give them a chance to talk. The kids were worried about tomorrow, some literally. A few wondered if tomorrow they would have to leave West Marin. One child said, “Mexicans really are good people.” He wanted his classmates to understand this point; they do. The staff reassured where they could, explained the timeline of a presidential transition and, most importantly, shared their commitment to each child. Every adult in the group told me how important it was to do this away from the distraction of the media and in a place seen by the kids as an extension of their homes and community. 

In the evening, the students were treated to another beloved camp tradition: storyteller and artist Ane Carla Rovetta shared traditional tales and wisdom around a campfire. Ane was greeted with a hero’s welcome when she walked up to the fire and then artfully wove the coyote trickster into one of her tales, sharing the message that it is good to pay attention, as the world isn’t always what it seems. As a zoologist, Ane always includes the science behind the story, emphasizing its importance in understanding the world. 

The combination of nature and community is a strong one, and it was of no small significance that President Obama used a nature metaphor when he reminded an anxious nation before last week’s election that, “no matter what the outcome, tomorrow the sun will rise.” Our campfire ended with the kids singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and my silent wish that as each child went to sleep they felt connected with something much larger than themselves. The following day, as the sun confidently rose upon the final morning at camp, we hoped each would give back by sharing what they learned with their families and friends. Point Reyes National Seashore belongs to all of us and every person is welcome to return to it again and again to enjoy, explore, replenish and connect.

 

Donna Faure, an Inverness resident, is the associate director at Point Reyes National Seashore Association. The Seashore Youth Ambassadors project was initially funded with a grant from the National Park Foundation; PRNSA is raising funds to offer it to additional schools.