by Bret A. Muter, Michigan Coordinator
Wow! It’s hard to believe it has been more than six years since I first travelled to Tucson to intern with a small, little-know program called Parks in Focus. I can honestly say that I never imagined a one-week trip to northern Arizona with a group of kids from Tucson would have had such a lasting impact on me. Personally, it made me cognizant of how fortunate I am to have had frequent and meaningful opportunities to experience nature as child. Professionally, it reignited my desire to pursue a career in environmental education. Six years later, I have helped to coordinate and implement Parks in Focus programming in seven states… and I’m still hooked!
I could go on at-length about all of the reasons why I love being a part of the Parks in Focus team and why I think this program is the coolest thing since sliced bread. In short: I get to spend time outdoors. I get to revisit many of the places in my home state that I had the privilege of visiting with friends and family while growing up. I work with some beyond-incredible people. It allows me to stay connected with the Udall community. And, I get the satisfaction of waking up every morning to work on cause that I am passionate about: connecting youth to nature. Although these are all great reasons to love your job, I think any of us on the Parks in Focus team will tell you that the participants are our real inspiration and motivation…
There’s never a dull moment on the trail when you’re leading a group of kids who haven’t spent a lot of time in nature. One of my favorite things about Parks in Focus is observing how the participants react to experiencing program locations and activities for the first time. Being there as someone catches their first fish or their first glimpse of Lake Superior is an incredible and inspiring experience. I also witness first-hand how the participants change throughout the course of our program (and beyond). For example, I regularly see fear morph into curiosity. Frogs, snakes, spiders and insects that initially trigger squirming, squealing and screaming quickly become interesting subjects to photograph, study and (sometimes) catch. These small ‘successes’ serve as frequent reminders of why we love what we do and why what we do is meaningful work.
Perhaps one of the greatest rewards has been seeing that our Michigan participants still want to be involved in Parks in Focus activities long after their first immersion trip. As some evidence, we had representation from our 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 trips at last month’s West Michigan alumni outing. We receive eight or more applications each year from Michigan alumni who are interested in attending our annual immersion trip as returning leaders. And, I frequently receive e-mails and Facebook messages from participants asking about the next alumni outing (which has been great motivation to get something on the calendar). In fact, it was because of alumni interest in the program that we coordinated our first advanced alumni trip to Isle Royale National Park. In my eyes this is a huge indicator of program success. It also reaffirms why the Parks in Focus team is so passionate about the program and why we are trying to build it: the kids we have reached want to continue exploring nature, taking pictures and spending time with peers who want to do the same.
Thanks to e-mail and Facebook I have been able to keep in touch with the majority of our past Michigan participants. Many of our 2007 and 2008 ‘alumni’ are now in their junior or senior years of high school and are beginning to think about their plans after graduation (many of which include college). I have enjoyed chatting with them about everything from their interests in colleges and majors to their plans to celebrate their graduation by getting a new camera or taking a road-trip across the country with friends to visit national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Tetons. Hearing that they are still interested in photography and parks – and that they are taking those interests with them to college is just icing on the cake.
I am proud of the impact Parks in Focus has had to date and am excited about our future initiatives in Michigan and beyond. I am also proud to help continue the Udall Legacy and look forward to staying involved with Parks in Focus for years to come.