Parks4Kids in Canyonlands: Turning Young Utahns Into Career-Ready Outdoorists

Latino high school students paddle the raging Colorado and learn about career opportunities in a field they’ve never considered: The outdoors.

By Kristen Pope March 8, 2017

The following story was made possible, in part, by the Outdoor Foundation, which helps raise and direct funds from outdoor companies to worthy outdoor programs that connect kids and young adults to nature.

Pulling on life jackets, 16 teenagers nervously surveyed the rumbling mass of water that coursed relentlessly through the red rock canyon near Moab, Utah. The sun was already hot, and it would soon be a scorching 100 degrees.

In a few minutes the teens—many of whom had never spent time on whitewater or among the desert canyons of their home state—would board rafts and set off down the Colorado River. That night they would sleep in tents on its banks, also a first for many who had never been camping. Hailing from several different high schools in Salt Lake City and Logan, Utah, as well as Preston, Idaho, the students were up for the challenges ahead. They were all here thanks to Latinos In Action (LIA), a 501(c)(3) serving high school students in several states and empowering Latino youth to be college and career ready through culture, service, leadership, and excellence in education.

For this trip, LIA had partnered with the Bureau of Land Management-Utah, U.S. Forest Service, O.A.R.S. river guides, the Outdoor Foundation, and other partners to put on this trip for the teens with the express mission of exposing them to the career opportunities in the outdoors. In the spring of 2016, Jeanette Shackelford, youth programs lead in BLM-Utah’s Moab Field Office, submitted the project for funding support through OIA and Outdoor Foundation’s Parks4Kids program. Three individual donors stepped up, and Outdoor Foundation completed the funding request. Just like that—and thanks to funding through the other partner organizations—the teens were off.

Students from around Utah joined Latinos in Action, O.A.R.S., the BLM and the USFS for a rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Students from around Utah joined Latinos in Action, O.A.R.S., the BLM and the USFS for a rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Navigating Class I and Class II rapids was intimidating at first, but the teens soon learned to relish the thrill of whitewater and embrace the refreshing splashes. On this trip, they would also explore paleontology, see real dinosaur tracks, and learn about careers in conservation and outdoor recreation.

Coming from urban communities, most of the students weren’t used to living outdoors. The first night, guides helped the group navigate the unfamiliar maze of poles and rain flies to set up their tents, and they shared camp cooking techniques and other useful outdoor skills.

By the second night, the teens were ready to show off their new outdoorist proficiencies, assembling their own tents and cooking the camp meal that evening—no simple feat for kids used to cooking with modern amenities like running water and electricity.

For many of the students, this was their first time camping.

For many of the students, this was their first time camping.

“It was really exciting to watch group cohesion build,” says Jennifer Jones, assistant field manager for recreation in BLM-Utah’s Moab field office. “It was fun to watch them building new friendships, meeting people, sharing stories, making up games. It was really fun to experience the excitement through their eyes.”

Jones notes that on the second day, when the kids stopped for lunch, she could “see how kids had completely transformed in literally 24 hours,” shedding the first-day nerves and enjoying their time on the river, playing in the water, teasing each other like old friends, and working together.

They gathered around the campfire at night, talking with representatives from the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, outdoor professionals, and even their own river guides to learn about ways to make a living while preserving, protecting, and helping people enjoy the outdoors. The adults shared their experiences and the paths they have taken to get them to their current careers in the outdoor realm.

“It opens the door of possibilities to them,” Jones says. “It’s exposing the youth to not only outdoor environmental career opportunities but discussing the reality that it’s okay to experiment with many different things at this point in life, to hopefully have the opportunity to find what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and have an opportunity to feel good about what they do.”

Beyond career opportunities, the program helped students realize that outdoor adventures are possible and something they can enjoy.

A lot of these kids feel disenfranchised and don’t have access—whether its transportation or [exposure]—to the outdoors,” says Shackelford. “The concept that ‘this is my big backyard’ and ‘how I can take care of it’ is pretty eye opening for kids.”

Camp LIA at BLM-Utah's Big Bend campground. Photo by Latinos In Action

After just a day or two on the river, the group of students who previously had little experience outside had turned into passionate outdoorists hungry for more.

This stewardship component is an important element of the LIA program. 

“Especially with the outdoors, we are all stewards of our community, and service is one of the main pillars of the LIA program,” says Isabel Rojas, director of systems and operations for LIA. “I think for populations that are considered vulnerable or at risk, doing activities in the mountains such as skiing and rafting seem a little bit [inaccessible]. They don’t know how to navigate it, or it’s something perceived as expensive or something they don’t do. But giving them that exposure, they can say they’ve done it once—’I’ve rafted the Colorado’—and that supports doing it again.”

“I learned that maybe I could come back some other time and camp with my family so they could come camping, too,” says Virginia Hernandez, a senior at Logan High School, who participated in the program. “They’ve never camped either. It was just me. That would be pretty fun if my whole family could come…hopefully, next summer.”