« Return to this article

Know the West

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 (www.melissahart.com).