What stories will you hear because we’re giving middle schoolers a voice?

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Parks in Focus matters because of the kids we serve. Our program does amazing things in the realm of environmental education, science education, art education, and outdoor education; but more than that, Parks in Focus gives voice to the youth who are part of it.

Who are those kids? Who participates in Parks in Focus?

Most youth who participate in Parks in Focus are members of a local organization that serves youth (Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, or parks & recreation departments).

E Menlo Park and E Palo Alto kids at Yosemite

Typically, though not exclusively, they come from underserved backgrounds – from low income, single-parent families where the parent is without a college degree.

Typically, the public schools our youth attend are under-staffed and under-funded; they have completely cut or limited recess, physical education, art, and field trips offsite (or outside at all).

Typically, our youth spend after-school and some weekend hours indoors at their clubhouses; clubhouses that have seen the same budget cuts as the schools – with few staff, slashed programs, and little opportunity to get outside.

And when most of the youth we serve finally go home, they are cooped up inside away from the sometimes perceived, sometimes very real, threats of their neighborhoods.

It’s not just that our kids would rather be indoors watching TV or playing video games; that’s a contributing factor, sure; but it’s more that the opportunities for getting outside, for connecting to nature, for visiting parks, for being active, don’t exist in a consistent, sustained way at school, in after-school programs, or at home for the majority of the youth we serve without a program like Parks in Focus.

But we are not only contending with those challenges, we’re also contending with this: the kids involved in Parks in Focus are…wait for it…middle schoolers.

Tucson boys goofing off in the Colorado River at Grand Canyon NP

Our youth are generally between the ages of 11 and 13.  They’re awkward, self-conscious, excitable, easily distracted, cautious, curious and wonderful. They’re at an absolutely critical stage in their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development – a transformative period where they are seeking both more autonomy and a critical sense of belonging. Every time we lead an outing, we see this dance play out among the kids: they have a longing to cut loose and be silly, to explore, investigate, and ask questions; but often don’t act on those longings due to concern about how they will be perceived.

We are aware of all of these factors, and they’ve influenced how we’ve grown and shaped the Parks in Focus program. Not only are we introducing youth to nature and science education, to photography, and to parks, public lands, and public service careers at a critical time in their educational development; but we’re building important skills, changing attitudes, and, ideally, influencing lives for the better.

We want to do more; please consider supporting our efforts and ensuring the program continues not only to reach youth who need us the most, but to illuminate their voices.

It’s easy to give.

Stay tuned for a series of videos, poetry and other writings, and a mix of artistic creations our youth have put together during Parks in Focus outings that express their thoughts, feelings, and the way they see the world around them.

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