Stories from the Field

The Impact of Project Pluton: Then & Now

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students hiking in yosemite

In Yosemite, there are three wonderful individuals that NatureBridge programs have impacted. I first wrote of former NatureBridge student Kate Slavensky who found her way back to the park years later. Two are graduates of Project Pluton, a free program that NatureBridge has provided to the three schools of the park (in El Portal, Yosemite Valley and Wawona) since 2001. This program also impacts lives.

Project Pluton brings students in grades fourth through six into Yosemite National Park to different locations once a month. Once a year the students get an overnight. Traditionally the overnight has been at our Crane Flat campus and every third year, a campout at Hetch Hetchy.

Savanna Deger and Laura Shenk were classmates at El Portal School where they had the opportunity to spend three years participating in the Project Pluton program (I was their educator)!

Savanna went on to Humboldt State and Laura to UC Berkeley. They both returned to work for Yosemite National Park. Savanna did some stints in campgrounds before taking on her current position as Interim Director of Yosemite National Park Child Care Center.

Laura went straight to the Division of Interpretation in the park. While getting her degree, Laura participated in the Yosemite Leadership Program Internships for a summer, bringing her back to Yosemite once again. She then got her first seasonal job at Nez Perce National Historical Park in Idaho. From there she jumped back to Yosemite and here she still is today—doing solo backpacks, participating in the Yosemite Photo Club, providing safety boat support for her friends, swimming Tenaya Lake (like me!) and more. 

Here, in Laura’s own words, her thoughts on how NatureBridge/Yosemite Institute has impacted her life:

I participated in two programs managed by Yosemite Institute (YI), now NatureBridge. When I was about eight years old, I participated in "Yosemite Is My Backyard," a day summer camp for local youth. Perhaps the greatest lesson from that program (besides learning the awesome game of "camouflage") was learning that I can accomplish more than I expect of myself. One day our group set off to hike the Mist Trail. I had hiked the to the top of Vernal Fall before, but I had never been to Nevada Fall. I remember being anxious and intimidated before the hike. The whole time Echo*, our educator, was so encouraging and made sure we knew how proud she was of us when we made it to the top. In addition to the praise, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment once we made it to the top—2,000 feet higher than where we started. More than a decade later, when I find myself in a situation that intimidates me, I remember the uncertainty I felt before we started our hike, but the payoff of reaching that accomplishment was worth the effort.

The second YI program that shaped my life was Project Pluton. This unique program takes local elementary school students, on monthly field trips to Yosemite. Some of our field trips included learning about watersheds at Hetch Hetchy and camping in the Merced Grove while we learned about giant sequoia trees. 

I can't pinpoint a specific moment when I decided to follow the careers of my parents, but I can say with certainty that YI helped get me here. Even though I have spent all but four years of my life in Yosemite, I know from my experience with Project Pluton that there is always something new to be learned. Or whenever I feel that something is unattainable, I remember the determination in my eight year old self and how great it felt to reach the top.

Echo is Erin “Echo” Davenport, who was a YI student from Santa Rosa back in the day. She became a YI Instructor (and was my evening program partner) and fell in love here with co-instructor Andrew “Boots” Davenport (NatureMatch anyone?). They both got jobs with Yosemite National Park, had two little boys, one of which is now in Project Pluton. Theme: Everything is Connected!

Project Pluton opened my eyes to this amazing place I call home. For the first time I saw Yosemite as a classroom, as opposed to a playground. 
Yosemite Institute and Project Pluton alum Laura Shenk

Savanna was not only a Project Pluton student from 2006-2009, she also was selected for the Armstrong Scholars in 2012.

Here she shares her favorite memory of Pluton and why she decided to return to where she grew up:

Looking back on Project Pluton, my favorite memory has to be playing camouflage. I remember this one time I was the Predator my friend Laura hid behind her mom who was standing directly in front of me. She was the last one I spotted! 

I returned back to Yosemite because I'm not done exploring here. There are nooks and crannies in every inch of this place that I still haven't discovered. I also love this place so much and want to be able to educate visitors of Leave No Trace and low impact actions to preserve this place for the next generation.

I’ve know Savanna and Laura since they started kindergarten at El Portal School. It never ceases to amaze, impress and inspire me to see these young woman living their lives in and around Yosemite, whether for a while or longer! This is why I teach.



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