Children in Nature
Last Thursday I attended the Children in Nature Collaborative’s fifth annual Celebration of Children in Nature. Westcave Preserve hosts the event each year and awards those organizations that exemplify the very best in connecting kids to nature.
The evening began with host, Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, discussing the importance of getting kids back to nature. With government funding scarce and cases of Nature Deficit Disorder on the rise, it is imperative that we support organizations whose commitment lies in enhancing children’s lives through nature.
Having never been to the event before, I was struck by how much the energy of the event equaled the firm commitment to all children by the organizers and award winners. The first award winner, Candlelight Ranch, won the E. Lee Walker Award for Collaboration. In a tear-inducing video, Don Barr, cofounder, shared a story of encouragement for special needs and at-risk children. He expressed how he and his late wife Jeri, started with a parcel of land and a dream to serve children, especially those with special needs, by giving them a place to rest, heal and enjoy the beauties of nature.
Today Candlelight Ranch has grown and Harriett Kirsh Pozen, Executive Director, says that in the last year, the number of children served increased by 68 percent. From zip lines and ropes activities to natural science and wildlife lessons, kids are encouraged to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. It’s not unusual to overhear a child shouting, “This was the best day of my life!”
Camp Fire USA Balcones Council was awarded the Westcave Preserve Award for Enduring Excellence. Camp Fire, once known as the Camp Fire Girls, is a co-educational program that prides itself on inclusiveness. It is dedicated to getting kids into nature and serves 3000 children a year, 70 percent of whom are underserved and at risk youth.
The John F. Ahrns Award for Environmental Education went to LCPL Nicholas S. Perez Elementary School, which is located near Dove Springs and Onion Creek and serves a population with 95 percent of children living in poverty. With outdoor classrooms, field trips and a school “Green Team,” Perez Elementary focuses on life beyond testing and on developing the whole child. Green Team leaders are “un-paving the way” and getting kids out of their desks and into the woods. In a speech read by his incredibly articulate nine year old daughter, David Kauffman, wrote that Perez Elementary strives for “not just no child left behind, but for no child left inside.”
The final award winner was Explore Austin, which won the John Covert Watson Award for Vision and recently celebrated its first graduating class. Explore Austin combines mentoring and outdoor adventure in a six year program for sixth through twelfth grade inner city youth. With wilderness trips and a year-round curriculum, Explore Austin has provided its Explorers with more than 96,000 hours of mentoring, 250 Saturday excursions and 30 weeks of backcountry wilderness trips. Two of the graduates spoke at the event and are now becoming mentors themselves.
Andrew Sansom, Executive Director, River Systems Institute and Adjunct Professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, wrapped up the awards ceremony with a tribute to Westcave Preserve, stating that it is leading a movement to bring Children in Nature to the forefront. He encouraged every one of us to take the time to take a kid fishing, hunting or camping and get them away from their screens and into nature.
After the awards ceremony, dinner was served outside on the lawn of the Four Seasons under the stars and among friends.