On a recent Sunday morning, a dozen young boys splashed gleefully in an alpine stream in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. Wearing rubber boots and wielding fine-meshed nets, they reached into the icy water, rolled rocks aside, and scooped up the flotsam released into the current. Then they dumped the contents into plastic trays held by patient park rangers, who helped the kids figure out what they'd found. "See that little round thing? What do you think it is? Yep, it's a fish egg!" "That wriggly bug there, that's a stonefly." The boys were mostly fascinated, and when it was time to go, one of them plopped down on the bank of the stream and said, "I don't ever want to leave!" Another studious-looking youngster was eager to get back indoors, though: "Video games are more fun," he announced with a frown.
The boys, ages 6 to 11, belong to multicultural Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops in urban Denver. Along with troop leaders and a handful of parents, they were attending a program designed to help diverse inner-city youth and their families connect with our country's national parks. Camp Moreno, founded by Roberto Moreno and his wife Louise in 2011, operates in seven national parks around the West, including Saguaro and Grand Canyon. Funded by individual donors and grants, the nonprofit has twice received a $15,000 grant from the National Parks Foundation's "America's Best Idea" program. Its goal is to increase visits to public lands by people of color, who now make up more than half of the U.S. population under the age of five. "They're the future voters, and if they're not involved in public lands, they won't vote to protect them," says Roberto. "Our public lands are in jeopardy, and we have to make sure the outdoors is relevant to (minorities') lives, that they value outdoor experiences."
This Camp Moreno program in Rocky Mountain National Park gets underway around 11 am on Saturday, July 20th. At the Moraine Park campground, Roberto welcomes about 30 kids and their families, many of whom have never been camping before. "These are your parks," he tells them. "They belong to you, and you should be using them." A few parents nod, but most of the kids just stare at him, apparently a little stunned by the thought that the pines and wildflowers and peaks all around actually belong to them. Roberto shares his personal story: "My parents were campesinos. They worked outdoors, and they didn't go camping. But in 1956 my dad saw a movie with Lucille Ball and Latino film icon Desi Arnaz called "The Long, Long Trailer", where they went to Western destinations, like Yosemite, and camped. My dad said, 'if Ricky Ricardo can go camping, so can we.' So we did. … I hear people say 'Camping is a white thing,' but it's not. There's a way bigger world out there for us."
Staff volunteers pull a mountain of tents, sleeping bags, and pads out of a trailer and show the kids how to set up all the gear, then rangers take them on a hike around Bear Lake. Chickaree squirrels, rainbow trout, and hummingbirds all cause the boys to shout with delight as they tear down the trail. One keeps glancing behind him. I ask him why. "Mountain lions," he says. "They eat little boys." I reassure him that nothing's going to eat him and that parks are safe places for kids.
Evening activities include cooking dinner, learning skills like GPS use and fire-building, playing games, and storytelling and s'mores around a campfire. Even a rainstorm doesn't dampen the kids' spirits. The next morning, they help fix pancakes and bacon and eggs, and set off on the aquatic bug collecting adventure while their parents get instruction in finding and using inexpensive camping gear. "It's Camping 101 on steroids," Roberto says. "No entrance fee, no camping fee, it's an intense 27-hour experience."
Roberto describes the Camp Moreno program as having been "born from concern that while outreach programs for minority children have value … for that child to actually develop a true long-term affinity for outdoor experiences in places like national parks, forests, BLM land and state parks, we need to find ways to encourage families to take their children back to (those lands) on a continuing basis." The Camp is meant to help Latino, African American and other “emerging populations” to understand how public lands can enrich their lives. "It's not just education and health and wellness," he says. "There's also an aspirational quality. You take a family in an industrialized place like Commerce City and bring them to Rocky Mountain National Park and suddenly they realize, they see that there were these great geologic upheavals 70 million years ago, they understand we need to preserve these public lands."
And the best way to do that, Roberto says, is to involve entire families. "There's pretty conclusive data over decades that families are one of the keys to increasing visitation of public lands. If you create experiences for kids, that's wonderful, but unless you involve their families too, it doesn't take. You have to get their parents to take them back."
He's also working on ways to "clone himself," he says; for example, he's running an academy at Grand Canyon to train others to run similar camps. "We have 22 requests from national parks and monuments that want to have these programs," says Roberto. "I want to take this nationwide."
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.
Photos by HCN associate designer Andrew Cullen.