Hi! My name is Melissa Gomez and I wanted to share with everyone the life changing experience I had during my first year as a VISTA.
Let me begin by giving you all my 1-minute elevator speech. I am a second year DOI/VISTA AmeriCorps member and the Youth Environmental Stewardship Coordinator for a small urban forestry non-profit organization called North East Trees. My role at North East Trees is to develop and implement the Youth Environmental Stewardship program (YES). YES is a job training program that strives to teach at-risk urban youth of color (ages 16-24) the skills needed to obtain green jobs. The goal is to offer at-risk youth the opportunity to engage in responsible outdoor learning on public lands which would then raise awareness for the economic opportunity presented in continued study, employment and careers in conservation related fields.
This is my very long and detailed story:
I started my service November 2014 and for the first few months I worked on getting settled at my work site and tried to figure out ways I could augment North East Trees youth programming. I began by working to establish partnerships with various organizations and local high schools and applying for grants.
One morning my supervisor, Aaron Thomas, mentioned that he ran into one of his former youth stewards, Luis Rangel, who now works for the National Park Service running spike crews at Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Park. Aaron went on to mention that Luis grew up in one of the local public housing facilities and worked for North East Trees for several years on greening projects. Luis later worked for the California Conservation Corps and now works for the National Park Service. With Luis’s story in mind, Aaron and I then talked about the possibility of expanding our youth program to include trips to National Parks. Taking our youth crews to a National Park would give them the opportunity to experience open natural space and to learn about the various careers available working for the National Park Service.
We set up a meeting with Luis to talk about the possibility of taking youth crews to Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Park to work with him on trail maintenance projects. Luis put us in contact with the Volunteer Coordinator for Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Park, Timothy Barrett. Timothy was very interested in partnering and suggested that we coordinate with their DOI/VISTA volunteer, Sarah Deleon, and SCA member, Stephaney Derby, who work with the Volunteer in Parks program. I immediately contacted Sarah to introduce myself and to let her know that I was planning to apply for grants which would allow our youth crews to volunteer at the park during the fall season. A couple months later, Sarah emailed me to touch base on the grants and to talk about a potential volunteering opportunity for the upcoming summer. She informed me that one of the schools she was partnering with for the Active Trails Program (a 2 week long service learning and recreational program for underserved youth) had scheduling conflicts and could no longer participate during the month of July. Sarah then extended an invitation to us, asking if we would be interested in having youth crews from North East Trees participate in the Active Trails program. Aaron and I accepted her invitation and started to plan our outreach and fundraising strategies for this project
I began our outreaching efforts by promoting our youth program to local high schools and community centers that service youth between the ages of 16-24. I also reached out to local companies and organizations to try and acquire sponsorships for our trips. By the first week of July I recruited 12 youth and had a contact from Forever 21 who was working to get our trips sponsored. A week later I had to cancel the program and our trip due to issues we were having starting our projects and a lack of response from funders. I was very disappointed since I worked very hard to recruit this group and many of the youth expressed how excited they were to go on their first camping trip. Fortunately, a couple days after I broke the bad news to our potential group of youth, I ran into a couple of Outward Bound Adventures staff members and told them about the issues we were having with our projects. Outward Bound Adventures (OBA) is a non-profit organization which strives to serve underserved urban and low-income populations and their families by providing meaningful and educational contact with nature that result in a greater appreciation of wilderness, self, family and community. North East Trees has had an ongoing relationship with OBA for several years and they also had a DOI/VISTA AmeriCorps volunteer who at the time was Orlando Valerino. I explained to OBA that we were having trouble starting our projects and we were no longer able to hire youth and take them to Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. The next day Orlando sent me an email notifying me that they recently had cancellations for one of their trips and would be able to take up to 12 youth on an 8-day camping trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the last week of July. I called our list of potential youth right away and confirmed 7 individuals for OBA’s trip.
A week later, our youth crew was ready to go on their first backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Inyo National Forest trip. This trip was a life changing experience for the entire group including myself. These young adults, all from the disadvantaged communities within north east Los Angeles, gained the opportunity to venture outside of their urban environment to explore open natural space for the first time. Throughout this trip they were able to hike to various lakes, develop leadership skills, wilderness survival skills and establish life long friendships. Each day was a physical and mental challenge but by the end of the trip they were proud of their accomplishments and happy they agreed to go on the trip.
Quotes from the youth:
“This was an experience of a lifetime that opened my eyes to the expanse of the world and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything”.- Sophia Rodas (Eagle Rock)
“My trip at the Sierras was amazing. Camping there for a whole week was a challenge, but it was all worth it. Seeing the lakes, views, and animals was so peaceful. I was able to think about my life without interruptions from city life cars, helicopters, etc. Hopefully I’ll convince my family and friends to tag along in this amazing experience with me”. – Jesse Alverez
“One of my favorite beautiful experiences I had at the trip, was the day we left Golden Trout Camp and headed for the Back Country. Everyone had connected with not only nature, but the kind people we were surrounded with. We were taught numerous things, and introduced to the indescribable. Today was the day we left our comfort zone to another world, not knowing what lied ahead of us. Although it was challenge arriving, I never felt so strong. Once there, I knew I wasn’t making it up….this place exists. The magical part of the earth we live in is up here, pure, beautiful, and full of possibilities.
I’ve become a different person through this trip in the most positive ways. I allowed myself to become the person I wanted to be. Why not? In a setting like this, there’s no reason to lie to yourself or become afraid. The lake, trees, and sky was a constant reminder. The city life will never be or feel the same, in way, that has shown I have grown tremendously. My group became my second family”. Ixchel J. Gonzalez
After the trip, Aaron and I continued our conversation with Sarah since we had high hopes that our projects would get the final approval and our contact from Forever 21 would get our trip to Sequoia/ Kings Canyon sponsored. A couple weeks later there was no resolution in terms of our projects and fundraising for the trip, so we were not able to take a group during the month of August. Fortunately, before Sarah ended her VISTA Service she was able to talk to her supervisor and the National Parks Foundation about the possibility of reallocating funds to help us pay for the food and transportation cost of the trip, which would only leave us to cover the costs for supervision. Determined to make this trip happen, I continued our fundraising efforts and worked to recruit a group of youth from the local community center so we can take a group during the month of September. I also contacted Outward Bound Adventures so we could have one of their staff members come with Aaron and I on this trip to help supervise. It took me several weeks to recruit, fundraise and plan the trip but we finally set a date and were ready to take our group to Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Park.
In partnership with OBA and the National Park Service at Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Park, we took 6 young adults to Sequoia National Park to participate in the Active Trails program. The youth had an amazing time working on various services learning projects such as collecting dragonfly larvae for biological research, closing campsites and micro-trash pickup. The youth also spend most of their time doing recreational activities such as hiking through the Giant Forest and to Pear Lake, climbing Moro rock and exploring Crystal Cave. Most importantly the youth were able to meet with National Park Service staff and learned about the various careers available working for the National Park Service. Each participant received a Sierra Nevada guide book, Sequoia National Park water bottle and backpack, Active Trails T-shirt as well as an annual park entrance pass which will allow them to get into any National Park for free for an entire year. Each participant had a great time and they are very excited to start their path towards a career within the National Parks and to start exploring new places.
Quotes from the youth:
“This entire trip was a unique and amazing experience, from the trips and hikes to the people in our group. This was an unforgettable experience that I will cherish in my heart for all my life.” – Briseida Vargas.
“My name is Max Morvari, and I was one of the lucky participants to embark on a glorious and wonderful adventure with North East Trees along with Outward Bound Adventures. This trip has definitely broadened my horizons in terms of pursuing a career as a park ranger and also knowing how much life there actually is in the world”.- Max Morvari
“To be honest at first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go camping because I didn’t know anyone and it was my first time camping. When we finally got to Sequioa I was super excited. I was there with an open mind and ready to explore. Throughout the week I started to get comfortable with the other people who were there and surely we all became friends. This trip opened my eyes; I learned to see nature in a different way. I learned to take care of my surroundings, to appreciate it. I also discovered that I like the outdoors, I work well with others and now I am comfortable trying new things”. – Artemia Ibanez
“This camping trip was truly amazing and it has inspired me to also take under privileged, inner city kids into the wild to discover nature’s beauty. With my park pass that was granted to me I will promise to use it to take other kids camping so they too can experience the awesome power of the natural world”.- Luna Sabbath
These trips were definitely the highlight of my entire first year of service. These youth live in some of the most densely populated, severely economic and environmentally disadvantaged regions in California. They normally do not have the means to visit their local mountains let alone a National Park and it was extremely gratifying giving them the chance to visit open natural space for the first time. Getting the chance to go outside of their urban environment to meet new people and experience new things was a life changing experience for them. They got so close by the end of each trip they now consider each other family.
As I am entering into my second year of service I am looking forward to working with the National Park Service at Sequoia National Park and Outward Bound Adventures so that we can take youth this upcoming summer. Also, we recently developed a partnership with the National Park Service in Tijuca National Forest in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. We potentially have the opportunity to take a group of youth to Rio de Janerio to work on a habitat restoration project in Tijuca National Forest. (Fingers Crossed)