From Fear To Fascination
By John Poimiroo
Recognizing that kids from the inner city and poor rural areas rarely get to go camping, the Lassen Park Foundation (LPF) and Lassen Volcanic National Park collaborated to create a new model for funding and operating a group campground for underserved youth in upstate California. In the two years since Volcano Adventure Camp opened, nearly 1,000 children have had their first camping experience there.
To construct the camp, LPF—a nonprofit charitable organization—raised $480,000 in private donations, and the National Park Service (NPS) contributed $288,000.
Since opening the campground, the LPF has allocated $135,000 annually for the operation of the camp, underwriting operational costs, including ranger/interpreters and interns and about $40,000 in annual grants to groups of underserved children. Additionally, the NPS maintains the campground and organizes programs.
The grants cover costs for transportation, sleeping bags, food, and other camping essentials for youth groups in Northern California, Nevada, and Southern Oregon.
Volcano Adventure Camp is on the site of a former group campsite, which saw little use. Ten dormitory-styled cabins, with a capacity of 80 youth and their adult chaperones, and two, multi-use pavilions for interpretive programs, assembly and dining, fire pits, washrooms, and vault toilets comprise the camp. An upcoming $85,000 second phase of improvements will include four additional cabins, a fire pit, picnic tables, and additional vault toilets.
“Because it is a group campground, we often are contacted by parents whose kids don’t have access to a Boys and Girls Club, Scouting, YMCA, community recreation, or church program that has applied for a grant,” says LPF Executive Director Jennifer Finnegan. “Our second phase will be able to accommodate smaller groups that don’t meet our 15-camper minimum, as it breaks our hearts to know there are kids out there who haven’t had the chance to camp because their community’s organizations are too small to apply for a grant.”
LPF does not organize the camping trips; it only provides the funding for the groups. Grant applicants must organize the trip, provide transportation, plan and prepare meals, and provide responsible adult supervision at Volcano Adventure Camp.
Park interpretation and field trips are provided by two, on-call, seasonal national park rangers, whose pay is funded by the LPF, while the NPS trains, equips, and houses them.
“We took this up because many children face significant barriers to success in life due to poverty, unstable family situations, lack of healthcare, lack of educational opportunities, poor achievement in school, racism, and neighborhood crime and violence,” says Finnegan. “The cycle of poverty, exclusion, and deprivation for many kids spans generation after generation. However, here at Volcano Adventure Camp, kids can escape a home environment where many are exposed to damaging behaviors and indifference to be inspired that there’s something bigger than us out there, something pure and inspiring … our national parks.”
“Today, children live in a social and physical environment that invites being sedentary and inactive. In less than a generation, American kids have become more connected to their devices than they are to the outdoors. This is particularly true for inner-city kids who are more likely to have played a video game than hiked on a trail. As a result, 31 percent of Californians between 10 and 17 years old are overweight or obese, and 44 percent of children and teens do not exercise regularly, reports the Annie E Casey Foundation,” says Finnegan.
“Contributing to that is that teens spend nearly nine hours a day consuming media. For tweens, the average is nearly six hours a day, according to a 2015 study by Common Sense Media,” she explains. “All this time spent indoors on devices is coming at the expense of spontaneous, unstructured outdoor play and resulting in what’s been called ‘nature deficit disorder.’ They’re trading ‘green time’ for ‘screen time.’”
Finnegan continues, “What we do at Volcano Adventure Camp—since there are very few places in the national park in which to get cell-phone reception—is connect kids to the outdoors by providing an intensive period of outdoor play and discovery, and it works.”
Group leaders report that the lives of the children attending the camp have been changed for the better, expanding their horizons, demonstrating to them that they had accomplished things they never imagined they’d do, such as sleeping on a volcano, climbing to the top of a mountain peak, identifying plants and animals they learn not to be fearful of but fascinated with, kayaking on a sub-alpine lake, and discovering the therapeutic value of the outdoors.
The Sierra Institute reported that a boy who had struggled in group settings and communicating was able to lead the other kids in his group to swim toward a setting sun on Big Bear Lake. An Oakland girl said she had never felt safer, happier, or more at home than in the national park.
Children who had been afraid to visit their neighborhood park learned not to fear indigo-black skies (bereft of city lights, lit only by millions of stars), hooting owls, and the knowledge that hundreds of bears were prowling the woods, instead discovering comfort and inspiration while camping.
Group leaders attribute the “secluded nature” of Volcano Adventure Camp as being “ideal for growth” for its young urban visitors, providing “a sense of isolation and safety that was highly beneficial. Camp was our world for three days. This facilitated rapid gains that would not have been possible in a busier, noisier setting with more distractions.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center described the experience as expanding its campers’ horizons of what is possible, the beauty of nature around them, and by putting them in unfamiliar situations that have helped develop self-esteem and a self-awareness of what they can accomplish and what truly interests them, not what others have said should interest them.
Over many years of providing camping to underserved kids, even before completion of Volcano Adventure Camp, the LPF has seen how camping in the park has inspired youth to return to the national park. A few have even sought employment as campground and park workers. And all have gained a new appreciation of camping, the outdoors, and our national parks and park rangers.
Finnegan explains, “In many of the communities where these kids live, anyone wearing a uniform is seen negatively, but here the kids are guided by a uniformed park ranger. At first, they’re wary, but on each day of their camping trip, they interact with and see, first-hand, what rangers do … how their job is to tell the park’s stories and care for its plants, animals, landscape, and visitors. Through that close interaction with rangers, they begin to see people in uniform in a different light, one they hadn’t experienced before.”
“It was never our intention to set out to cure society’s hiccups. We only wanted to give kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to camp in a national park that opportunity. What we’ve discovered is that camping in a place as beautiful and endlessly fascinating as Lassen Volcanic National Park changes lives. It’s perhaps the best and most helpful experience many of these kids may ever have as children. We have only to listen to what Volcano Adventure Camp alumni tell us to know that’s so. A three-time Boys and Girls Club camper wrote to us that each time he camps in the park, ‘I find something new that I love,’” Finnegan adds.
Establishing Volcano Adventure Camp was not easy. It took years of fund-raising by the LPF and insightful leadership by the NPS to diverge from the way national park campgrounds had typically been designed and managed.
“The model national park campground has traditionally been set up to accommodate single families or small groups of families,” says Lassen Volcanic Chief of Interpretation and Education Kevin Sweeney. “The traditional single-family campground approach wasn’t satisfying the need to introduce underserved youth who are not able to camp with their families or family groups in a national park. We understood that our mission in creating Volcano Adventure Camp was to reach out to new audiences and provide opportunities for them to become stewards of the park.
“Volcano Adventure Camp is a start, one that combines philanthropic funding, national park programs, and private group leadership to help these underserved youth experience their national park and perhaps bring inspiration to their lives,” says Sweeney.
For more information, visit lassenparkfoundation.org and nps.gov.lavo.
John Poimiroo is a former board member and a travel writer. He was recently nominated for California Outdoors Hall of Fame. To reach him, visit https://www.poimiroo.com/.