Editor's note: A topic discussed in detail at America's Summit on the National Parks earlier this year was not just how to get youth into the parks, but how to attract a cross-section of youth that reflected America's diversity. In a series of stories, the Traveler is looking at the approaches different groups take to address that issue. In this, the second installment in the series, we'll look at strides being made to connect Latino students with Grand Teton National Park.
Today it's estimated that 46 percent of the country's youth under age 18 are either Hispanic, African American, or from some other minority group, while 54 percent are Caucasian. By 2050, it's predicted that 38 percent of students in U.S. schools will be from Hispanic households.
Those numbers are important to keep in mind when visiting national parks today, and looking at the racial makeup of visitors, and when wondering who will be stewards of the National Park System by mid-century.
"The increasing size and changing composition of the U.S. population has major implications for the NPS and for the use and non-use of parks and visitors center," noted James Gramann, the visiting chief social scientist for the National Park Service, in a 2003 report, Trends in Demographics and Information Technology Affecting Visitor Center Use: Focus Group Report. "The fastest-growing segment of the US population is made up of people who are under-represented in visits to national parks, including Latinos and other peoples of color."
In some gateway communities to national parks, minority populations are growing, but those populations are not necessarily reflected in the diversity of park visitors. Reasons for the disparity are varied, ranging from costs and an unfamiliarity with the outdoors to discrimination and even association of Park Service uniforms with those of Border Patrol agents.
Working With Schools to Bring More Latinos Into Parks
In Jackson, Wyoming, the gateway to Grand Teton National Park, the Latino population has been growing strongly -- it encompasses 26 percent of the town's population -- and yet it's not reflected on the park's trails, its lakes, or its museums.
To better understand why that was, park officials gathered focus groups to "find out what some of these barriers were and why these families weren’t going," said Kim Mills, the manage of communications and corporate relations at the Grand Teton National Park Foundation.
"And it was everything from they don’t have a lot of free time because some of them work two and three jobs, to it’s just not something that they’re used to do," explained Ms. Mills. "Entry costs for some were prohibitive. Safety concerns. They’re not used to recreating in the outdoors, they are not sure about the willdife. It was a variety of things. And then the park uniforms reminded them of immigration, and it was scary.
“Also, not having recreational equipment, not being familair with skate skiing for example, or whatever the case might be. So there were a lot of reasons that they identified for why these families weren’t getting into these parks."
With hopes of overcoming some of these concerns, the Foundation, park staff, and the Teton Science Schools developed Pura Vida -- "Pure Life," "Full Life," or "This is Living," depending on who you ask -- a program focused on helping Latino students in the community not only come to know the national park, but one that encourages them to in essence become ambassadors for the park among their peers.
"Pura Vida was the idea to reach out to this community and say, ‘Come on in, let’s talk about this. We want to talk to you about recreation, we want to show you about this, we want to teach you a little bit about how you move in the woods, and you don’t need to be afraid of this, and let’s talk about wildlife, and here’s some of the equipment and here’s some of the things that we do here,'" said Ms. Mills. "Really, we wanted just to introduce each and every part of the park to these kids, and in turn they bring their families in."
The program was launched in 2010, with a week-long program for eight Latino students during the school system's spring break, and then three week-long programs during the summer. Overseeing the program in the park is Vanessa Torres, a ranger specializing in youth, diversity, and community outreach and who is fluent in Spanish.
As part of the program, passes to the national park were given out to Latino families: "If costs truly were something that prohibited them from coming into the park, then we wanted to remedy that," Ms. Mills said. "So that was a good thing, they started using the park more."
Pura Vida Connects Latino Youth With Experts In the Outdoors
During that first year, Pura Vida reached 42 students and 55 family members. Last year, 23 middle and high-school students and their families participated. Through the program the students meet with park staff as well as staff from the Teton Science Schools to better understand the park and its natural resources.
Along with these field trips, the students during the spring break sessions also work on developing curriculum for the summer programs.
“So they spend some of their time in the field exploring the resources, learning about the park, and then some of their time developing their proposed Pura Vida program," said Victoria Mates, chief of interpretation and partnerships at Grand Teton. "So every day they would focus on a different program component, what the breadth of the program would be, the goals of the program would be, and the daily progression of the agenda.
“And with the park’s staff help, the students work collaboratively to develop a proposal for what they would create for their peers," she continued. "And they presented that at the end of the week, to park service staff, Teton Science Schools staff, Grand Teton National Park Foundation staff, to be able able to get that approved for the summer programming."
A somewhat similar approach to developing park interpretative programs geared toward today's youth has been taken at Acadia National Park in Maine, where Friends of Acadia and park staff last summer worked with a team of teenagers to explore how technology could enhance a visitor's experience in the park, without replacing any of the traditional interpretation methods.
"By reframing technology as a portal into the park rather than a barrier, and asking youth directly what they find most interesting, the park can create new and uniquely effective tools to awaken kids, teenagers, and young adults to the treasures of Acadia," wrote Aimee Beal Church, the communications and outreach coordinator of the friends group, in an article that appeared in the Friends of Acadia Journal.
Back at Grand Teton, Chief Mates said that park staffs around the country are realizing that when they work on developing curriculum and programs for youth in the 15-25 age bracket, they need input from those youth.
"Sometimes the park staff does it in a vacuum, or does it without the involvement of other students, then it’s not quite as successful as it could be," she said. "So I think that there are quite a few natonal parks out there ... that are doing this, that they allow the students to help develop the curriculum so they’re actually creating a program that a teenager would be interested in attending.”
But along with developing programs, Pura Vida is about developing comfort levels in the national park.
"There are a lot of students who have never been to a national park before, and there are a lot of students who have never camped before," the interpretation chief said. "An interesting thing that happened this year was a group, when it came to plan the agenda, they wanted to have an overnight experience, whereas in the first year there wasn't one.
“But they thought that that was something that would be beneficial to help these students through a group that is already comfortable to them. That is one of the benefits of working with the school system: If you bring the students to the park in a group that is a peer group that they’re already comfortable with each other, then there’s a higher comfort level with engaging in activities that maybe are a little bit more uncomfortable.
"... Some of the students, they specifically called out that not only do you learn more about the park, but you learn to feel part of a family. There’s somebody who mentioend that Pura Vida is important because 'we got to be with Latino kids, like me.’ "So the fact that we’re bringing students into the park, in peer groups, in a safe forum, through their schools, which is a place where they already feel safe, I think that it helps to bridge that apprehension a little bit.”
The results of the program are being seen not only in more Latinos heading to the park, but some are considering careers with the Park Service, according to Ms. Mills.