How my adopted daughter made peace with the outdoors

If our daughter couldn’t tolerate nature, how would we integrate her into our world?


Before you can adopt a child from Oregon’s Department of Human Services, social workers ask you to spend several half-days together. The first time my husband and I took the toddler we hoped would be ours out alone, her foster mother gave me a green plastic rectangle. “State parks special access pass,” she said. “Waives the parking fee.”

She directed us to a nearby forest with sunny patches of grass ideal for a family picnic. We spread out our plaid blanket with sandwiches and bananas. My husband and I clasped hands as our child-to-be — this curly-haired baby born of addiction and loss — stepped onto the grass. Barefoot, blades prickling her tender soles, she burst into tears. This was a problem we had to solve.

Almost 2,000 foster children wait for permanent families in Oregon, and over 100,000 do nationwide. They’ve been relinquished by birth parents suffering from addiction, poverty and domestic violence. Most go to foster parents who are dedicated to giving kids a decent start. A stipend provides money for food, clothing, a few toys and medical care. The cost of pediatricians and therapists leaves scant extra for trips to waterfalls, sand dunes and forests.

Enter Oregon’s special access pass. Like similar programs in some other states, it offers foster and adoptive parents free day-use parking and overnight camping at state parks. Our own green rectangle arrived in the mail shortly after our new daughter’s unhappy encounter with grass. My husband and I lived to spend our free time outside: If our daughter couldn’t tolerate nature, how would we integrate her into our world?

Overwhelmed by diapers and therapy appointments and our toddler’s mirthless silence, we told ourselves, “We’ve got to get outside.”  We showed our daughter how to pick blackberries along the meandering trails of Elijah Bristow State Park beside the Willamette River. We pointed out herons and deer. She stared grimly, face smeared berry-red.

We drove up to Silver Falls State Park near Portland and strapped her into a backpack for a hike to the cave behind South Falls. The roar of water combined with mist on her face undid her. She wailed until we returned to the car. For a while, the special access pass lay abandoned. We restricted our travels to the backyard until she began, gradually, to trust us and the wider world. 

Years later, a learning disability became so significant that we pulled her from second grade and began home-schooling. I took a pay cut and cooked rice and bean dinners so we could afford gymnastics lessons, Girl Scouts, and museum trips. When our special access pass expired, we gratefully applied for renewal. We’ve used it to explore Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, to dig quartz at Agate Beach State Recreation Area, to gaze up at red and orange MonkeyFace Rock at Smith Rock State Park near Bend. Our daughter began to look forward to those trips. 

Over the years, we’ve met families for whom the pass has been a lifesaver. One couple has fostered over 20 kids; they now have one who’s undergone 13 heart surgeries. On vacations, they head out to one of Oregon’s 361 state parks. Other friends adopted three children. They pile everyone into their van with the pass dangling from their mirror, then trot along trails with backpacks and binoculars, their faces alive with curiosity.

Some will argue that tax dollars are better spent on more pressing needs. But nature is a need, too, and most children — foster, adopted or otherwise — too often plant themselves in front of screens in sterile rooms devoid of streams and grass and wildlife. Plenty of studies have linked time spent outdoors to increased optimism and physical wellbeing. The pass removes a financial barrier between kids who’ve gotten a rough start in life and the therapy that only standing in a stream, gazing at clouds or rolling down a sand dune can provide.

Last year, my family drove across Oregon. The pass got us into Wallowa Lake State Park, where our daughter swam until her lips turned blue. We drove to Pete French’s Round Barn and toured Kam Wah Chung Museum, an old Chinese apothecary and opium den. Travels like this have broadened our daughter’s perspective and captured her imagination. A child born bereft and abandoned now moves through the world with confidence and excitement.

After Kam Wah Chung, we spread out our blanket on a sunny patch of grass and ate sandwiches and tangerines. Afterward, my daughter practiced her gymnastics. Hands clasped, my husband and I watched as she ran barefoot across the grass. Suddenly, she sprang into a cartwheel, fell over onto her back, then leaped up and laughed. 

Melissa Hart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She lives in Eugene, Oregon and is the author of Avenging the Owl and the memoir Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (

High Country News Classifieds
    Do you want to help shape the future of groundwater in the Grand Canyon region? The Grand Canyon Trust is hiring its first water advocacy...
    California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) seeks a strategic and visionary Executive Director: View all job details here-
    The new novel by Ray Ring, retired HCN senior editor, tackles racism in the wild, a story told by a rural White horsewoman and a...
    Title: Digital Engagement Specialist Location: Salt Lake City Reports to: Communications Director Status, Salary & Benefits: Full-time, Non-Exempt. Salary & Benefits information below. Submission Deadline:...
    Title: Conservation Field Organizer Reports to: Advocacy and Stewardship Director Location: Southwest Colorado Compensation: $45,000 - $50,000 DOE FLSA: Non-Exempt, salaried, termed 24-month Wyss Fellow...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Apply by Oct 18. Seeking collaborative, hands-on ED to advance our work building community through fresh produce.
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit:
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.