New program helps inner-city youth experience the wilderness

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ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah – About 25 fifth graders went camping for the first time, and it was part of a program designed to engage youth in the wilderness of Zion National Park.

A new program called Concrete to Canyons allowed students at a Las Vegas charter school, Rainbow Dreams Academy, take a trip to Zion for three days and two nights.

Billie Rayford was formerly a principal at Rainbow Dreams Academy, and she said it was a great experience.

“The experience at Rainbow Dreams Academy has been one that is just unforgettable, and this is one of the most exciting activities that we have been a part of,” she said.

Those behind the pilot program said they hope to connect inner-city youth with the idea of national parks and wilderness protection through an immersive experience.

“I think so many of our children would never have the opportunity to get beyond their neighborhoods and so to go across two state lines to arrive here, I think it’s going to be a most unforgettable experience for them,” Rayford said.

Before the students made their trip, staff from the park came to their school to introduce curriculum based on wilderness concepts.

“The concepts that are tied to our curriculum and our state standards have already been emphasized through the work of the National Park Service, and through our science curriculum,” Rayford said. “And not only are we integrating all of the concepts throughout the curriculum from English language arts to science, to the physical education components of it--everything is linked so that when they walk away they have concepts embedded through these experiences that they would never have an opportunity to have. "

Carolyn Hill is the director of grants and programs at the National Park Foundation, and she said it’s about teaching young people to protect the environment.

“We'll hopefully develop a new generation of stewards for all these treasures that we have in our system,” she said.

Marrion Thomas is one fifth grade student who made the trip.

“I'm excited because we get to learn new things and go walk places and see animals,” Thomas said.

After the trip to Zion, students visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area and participate in a service learning project. Project organizers said they plan to expand the Concrete to Canyons program to other grade levels, schools and groups in future years.