Tuesday, September 19 , 2017, 7:23 pm | Fair 67º

 
 
 
 

For Many Wilderness Youth Project Kids, Time in Nature a Transformative Experience — Inside and Out

Staff recount emotional stories of youth changing before their eyes as a result of first-time engagement with the outdoors


(Melissa Walker / Noozhawk video)

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is the third in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

The environment of Santa Barbara County provides an abundance of opportunities for youth and adults to embrace a variety of natural habitats, and the Wilderness Youth Project helps to inspire local kids who are curious to learn and play in the great outdoors.

“Our after-school programs with Wilderness Youth Project are all about helping kids get out into the natural world and enjoy some great free time and some unstructured play time,” associate director Erika Lindemann told Noozhawk. “And ... a number of different awareness games and times where we can focus in on things in the natural world.”

Preschool-age children benefit from exploring the boundaries of natural spaces to develop decision-making skills, while school-age kids who participate in running and playing games in the outdoors develop important team building and social skills.

“It’s the connection these kids have with nature, but also a big part of it is the connection these kids have with each other — the social aspect of it,” lead program staff member Mario Mendez said.

The Wilderness Youth Project utilizes unique mentoring and active outdoor experiences to provide youth with the opportunity to spend time in nature and become future stewards of the environment.

Staff and volunteers keep kids engaged by observing what draws their interest in the outdoors.

“In that moment where there’s some sort of engagement from the kid to something in nature, you jump in and you do nature connection techniques and questioning to try to get them even more intrigued,” Mendez explained.

Programs are offered year round and throughout the school week and weekends for children from Santa Barbara County schools, including Adams School, Adelante Charter School, Brandon School, Crane Country Day School, La Cuesta Continuation High School and McKinley School.

Although there is a local focus, WYP also has worked with youth from elsewhere, including some from the Los Angeles area who “walked out of the bus and had never even walked on uneven ground, had never really hopped on rocks or across a creek,” Mendez said.

Everyone can face an initial fear or some type of anxiety about things that are different, but the connection to nature is something that’s ingrained in each of us.

“It’s such a familiar feeling that within hours you see these kids transformed and you see that transformation — their eyes getting wide and their bodies transform,” Mendez said.

Wilderness Youth Project participants gather wildflowers during a recent outing in the Santa Barbara County backcountry. (Eric Isaacs photo / EMI Photography)
Wilderness Youth Project participants gather wildflowers during a recent outing in the Santa Barbara County backcountry. (Eric Isaacs photo / EMI Photography)

This transformational effect crosses all boundaries, and Mendez shared an emotional example that created a lasting impact for one local boy. He said the youth was from a gang family, and his father and brothers were in jail.

The touching moment occurred on a three-day trip to the wilderness above the Santa Ynez Valley. On the last day, the group formed a circle to share what they were thankful for. During the boy’s turn to share, the group finally understood why he had spent part of each day collecting wildflowers from around the camp area.

“He said that I’m thankful for all of these wildflowers that are growing because my mom sometimes takes care of this old lady,” Mendez recalled. “And before coming here on the trip he had visited the woman and told her he was going on a long weekend trip out into nature.”

The woman told him to not forget to look at all the wildflowers because that was her favorite thing when she was young, to be able to see all of the wildflowers.

“We all got really teary-eyed and started crying because this was a kid, when I met him, who showed no emotion and was on the fast track to going down the wrong path for sure,” Mendez said. “And here we were a group of peers and mentors going around for like 20 minutes collecting wildflowers for this lady!

“That was really emotional for me, that sense of empathy that was created in this boy from the nature connection,” he added. “That was a reminder for me that the work that we do touches people in a very positive way and you could see the results.”

The Wilderness Youth Project could not thrive without the support of volunteers and donors who help drive its mission. Click here for more information about the Wilderness Youth Project, or call 805.964.8096. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Fairview Gardens in Goleta was a recent destination for Wilderness Youth Project staffers Erika Lindemann and Ulises Rios and program participants Juan Escobar, Angel Estrada, Jair Jaramillo, Jesus Medina, Helene Navarrete, Osiel Ocampo, Eminnen Pachucas, Samantha Sandoval, Samuel Sandoval and Nitzy Verdusco. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)
Fairview Gardens in Goleta was a recent destination for Wilderness Youth Project staffers Erika Lindemann and Ulises Rios and program participants Juan Escobar, Angel Estrada, Jair Jaramillo, Jesus Medina, Helene Navarrete, Osiel Ocampo, Eminnen Pachucas, Samantha Sandoval, Samuel Sandoval and Nitzy Verdusco. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

Wilderness Youth Project lead program staff member Mario Mendez describes flora and fauna during an outing. (Eric Isaacs photo / EMI Photography)
Wilderness Youth Project lead program staff member Mario Mendez describes flora and fauna during an outing. (Eric Isaacs photo / EMI Photography)

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