ST. GEORGE — The National Park Service has partnered with Dixie State University to create a program that offers free park excursions to under-represented youth.
The program — Outdoor Leadership Academy — uses funds provided by the park service to organize trips to national parks. The academy defines under-represented youth by park service standards, which include racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, those with disabilities and those who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds under the age of 35.
Director Erin O’Brien, a biology professor at Dixie State, said these groups are targeted because they are also under-represented in the national parks. National park visitors and staff are largely white, middle-to-upper class people, she said.
The program is meant to help the youth experience nature and historical sites while exposing them to diverse career opportunities involved in public lands. By working with the youth and helping them have meaningful experiences, the program hopes some will become community leaders as they finish high school and college.
O’Brien said the program is expected to cause a “ripple effect” when the youth become adults and continue to expand not only the program but also national park opportunities for everyone.
Outdoor Leadership Academy is also partnering with programs that are already working with under-represented youth. The program has worked with Page High School in Arizona – whose student body is 70% Navajo – to send the school’s under-represented students on an annual river-rafting trip. O’Brien said the academy also has a trip planned in August with Leaders in Training, an organization that works with at-risk youth in high school and college.
The program networks and recruits with on-campus college clubs and organizations, as well. O’Brien said Outdoor Leadership Academy has helped students from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Southern Utah University, the College of Southern Nevada and others.
Outdoor Leadership Academy is working to obtain more diverse funding in order to have a more financially secure program that does not place strain on the National Park Service, which has a budget that can be quite tight at times. O’Brien said the academy not only wants to expand to more people and places, but also to “involve as many national parks as we can.”
“That way students get to experience the diversity of public lands that are available.”
The organization was founded by Rosie Pepito, who has since retired. O’Brien said she was one of only two park service superintendents with a tribal background at the time. Pepito was familiar with a program based in California called the Diverse Outdoor Leadership Institute, which would take small groups of high school students from under-represented backgrounds for weeklong hiking trips.
“Most youth find that kind of experience really meaningful,” O’Brien said. “It’s not always comfortable. You kind of get outside your comfort zone, and it helps students make really great bonds with nature and one another.”
Pepito used this model and adapted it to the needs of Southern Utah. Outdoor Leadership Academy, unlike Diverse Outdoor Leadership Institute, does not have a signature trip and is able to meet the needs of more students because its definition of “under-represented youth” is much broader, O’Brien said.
“When we do a lot of our hikes and our kayaking trips, those aren’t necessarily as inclusive as we would like them to be,” she said.
O’Brien said, in the future, she would like to see more opportunities for youth with limited mobility. Forest bathing, for example, is an activity that people from all walks of life can enjoy together.
The longest trip the academy has organized to date has been five days, whereas most of the program’s trips are three days. Youth can apply for trips on the program’s website. Although there is a lottery system for smaller trips, O’Brien said quite a few of the trips are big enough that the program can accommodate most of the applicants. Those who do not identify as an under-represented youth can still participate in the program as leaders and volunteers.
Outdoor Leadership Academy will be taking a group of youth from the Kabot Paiute Tribe to Bryce Canyon National Park during a three-day trip in July. The program has also scheduled service projects in Zion National Park in September and a trip to California in late fall.
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