Rebeca Solares never gave much thought to the trees growing in her urban northern California town until she went on a five-day backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park this past summer. There the 12-year-old learned from park rangers that trees need “loving care just like people do.”
Youth like Solares are flocking to the park thanks to the generosity of private donors. The number of children and teens enrolling in Yosemite’s programs has more than doubled in the past five years to nearly 50,000 this past summer.
What’s more is that statistics show Latinos make up a large portion of those young people. Solares’ backpacking trip was part of Parks in Focus, a program of the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation that helps connect middle school students to nature through photography. Program officials say 75 percent of the middle-schoolers in the program were Latino.
Many, like Leilany Nazarro, had little experience with photography.
“I found out how to use a digital camera and how to take videos,” says the 12-year-old from Menlo Park, California. “One of my favorite photos was of Half Dome. We were really close to it and I took a photo of it while the sun was setting.
Hispanic teens also made up a high proportion of Yosemite’s Adventure Risk Challenge program. Out of the 145 participants in this year’s program, 119 were Latino. The ARC program combines wilderness and academics, and is geared at-risk high school students who are mentored by college students during a series of weekend retreats with a 40-day summer immersion in the park. Seventy-seven percent of the teens in the program end up enrolling in college.
“For many of these kids, it’s their first time in Yosemite. Their first time camping out,” said Mike Tollefson, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, a non-profit that raises money to protect and preserve the park and enhance visitor experiences.
In the past several years, the Conservancy has tripled its funding of Yosemite’s youth programs from about $400,000 to $1.3 million. Tollefson said fostering a love for the park in young people would help ensure its future.
“A huge part of our job and for me, personally, is to really help kids and young adults understand the value of a place like Yosemite and become stewards of that," Tollefson said
Implicit within that goal, he said, is to make sure that urban youth, particularly minorities, experience the park.
“The face of California has to be excited about Yosemite. That’s really what will carry it forward. It can’t be any one small group of people. It has to be the breadth of the state.”
Nancy Averett is a freelance writer based in Ohio.