By Estrella Risinger, national education manager for NatureBridge.
Blindfolded and uneasy, a group of fifth graders entered the depths of the Spider Cave in Yosemite. Each kid walked with a degree of uncertainty, guiding each other hand to shoulder. One confident young boy named Henry decided to help his frightened peers.
“It’s okay, I’m right here,” he said reassuringly. “We’re almost through.”
Known for behavior issues, learning challenges, and an isolated nature, Henry awed his chaperone with his willingness to support his peers. Throughout the trip, Henry held branches back for his classmates as they hiked through the park, looked out for others, and became the honorary ‘Mother Hen’ of his class.
Through NatureBridge, Henry experienced new challenges outside the social norms of a traditional classroom. The rules in nature were different, and Henry discovered a place where he could thrive.
That’s the impact that NatureBridge programs have on kids like Henry. NatureBridge is a national nonprofit that provides environmental science programs for kids in six national parks. Their mission is to connect young people to the wonder and science of the natural world, igniting self-discovery and inspiring stewardship of our planet. It is the largest residential education partner of the National Park Service, serving more than 30,000 students and their teachers each year.
Alexis Llamas, Program Associate for the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, witnessed Henry’s story, and saw how it demonstrated the youth development experience the Foundation works to foster across the country. The Foundation is committed to helping young people develop the knowledge, skills and character to grow into caring, informed, and productive adults.
NatureBridge is proud to be among the cohort of 13 youth development organizations selected for funding by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation as part of its effort to elevate character development on a national scale. Roughly 48 percent of our nation’s youth will come into contact with one of these organizations over the course of their K-12 career.
Through this funding, NatureBridge has gained a better understanding of the social and emotional learning outcomes that its programs have on peer-to-peer relationships. Freed from the social norms specific to the classroom, relationships are strengthened and students feel empowered to take on roles different from those at school.
Henry’s loved ones may have never seen this side of him emerge if it hadn’t been for his time at NatureBridge. Each year, residential environmental education providers collectively impact nearly one million young people in the U.S. These immersive experiences create a unique opportunity to engage young people in character development outside of the classroom.
With the support of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, NatureBridge aims to learn more about the intersection of environmental education and character development so that, like Henry, every student can discover a new side of themselves in the outdoors.
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