By Beth Wyant
I suppose every state in the union can brag about the natural wonders within its borders, but in Washington State, we’re brimming with the glories of nature. We have Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helen’s, the Columbia River Gorge, the Hoh rain forest (yes, you read that right, it’s a rain forest!), and the world’s longest peninsular beach (28 miles of it). Not surprisingly, we have an outdoor culture in Washington, with camping, backpacking, biking, climbing, swimming, kayaking and canoeing all seemingly hard-wired into many native Washingtonians.
Many, but not all. As the program coordinator of the 21st Century afterschool and summer program of the Northwest Community Action Center, a division of Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, I work with 1,600 youth from 15 different schools in the Lower Yakima Valley. It’s common for these children from mostly low-income families to have grown up nearby, but never visited, our state’s natural wonders. Last year, I went on an outdoor education trip to Mt. Rainer, during which 25 of our elementary students enjoyed a day of hiking. Only five had ever been in the area before, even though it’s just 90 minutes away by car. Most had never laid eyes on a forest. Their sense of wonder was palpable; their eyes were wide, and they kept buzzing about the smell of the pine trees and the quiet of the forest.
That experience was part of what motivated us to apply for a “No Child Left Inside” grant this year from the state Recreation and Conservation Office, which runs the state parks system. We heard about the grant program from School’s Out Washington, which administers our state afterschool network. That prompted us to read up on the grant program on the parks system website, and then we put together a seven-page proposal. Ours was one of 122 applications from across the state, 19 of which were funded. We were the only one to receive the maximum grant amount of $125,000.
We are going to put it to good use. It will allow us to take our youth to state parks, teach them about conservation, explore Mt. St. Helen’s, get them kayaking on lakes and rivers, take them camping – all things that many of them have never done before. And we are hoping we can get their parents and siblings to join us in some of our adventures, making it into a learning experience for the entire family. The money will also help us buy fishing gear, pay for season passes at state parks, and so much more.
Apart from introducing our students to the extraordinary natural beauty around them, and teaching them how the water in their taps at home is related to the water in the mighty Columbia River, it will give us a chance to teach them habits of fitness that can last a lifetime. We’ve long followed National Afterschool Association’s Healthy Eating and Physical Activity standards in our programming, and we’ve also implemented the state’s SNAP-Ed program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to help students and families learn how to make healthy food choices. It includes trips to grocery stores, cooking classes, a community garden and more.
So if sometime soon, you happen upon a group of wide-eyed children following the Lewis & Clark trail or taking in the Columbia River Gorge, it might just be us!
Beth Wyant is the program coordinator of the afterschool program of the Northwest Community Action Center, a division of Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, and an Afterschool Ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance.