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Editor’s note: Michele Talvin is a guest blogger who serves as Yosemite Trip Coordinator and Treasurer for John F. Kennedy Middle School’s Expeditionary Education Foundation in the Redwood City School District.
In the fall of 2022, I brought a group of 54 eighth graders to NatureBridge for the first time since the Covid pandemic shut down the school district in March of 2020. Our group was extremely smart and engaging for students who were just coming out of two years of forced homeschooling. This group of students had been without any outdoor education opportunities since the fourth grade, which consisted of a two-day camping trip run by parents.
There was one student who stood out from the group. Emilio is a 13 year-old student who struggles with challenges related to social connectivity, learning engagement and adhering to healthy boundaries. He has a rigid structure at school with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and a full-time aide. Most of the students on the trip had a friend that they buddied up with straight away, but not Emilio—no one knew him well enough to buddy with him or there were issues with his awkwardness.
Emilio came on the trip without his full-time aide, whose absence represented his first hurdle to overcome. Having an adult hanging over his shoulder guiding his behavior every minute of the school day was his daily ritual—and to some extent Emilio found this hand-holding embarrassing for his peers to witness. Emilio embraced this new expanded boundary on the trip by observing his surroundings, which were very unfamiliar to him, and finding respectful limits in his interactions between the other students and chaperones.
Yosemite received its first snowfall for the winter season on our second evening at Curry Village. In the morning as Emilio and I walked over to breakfast, his eyes were looking at the ground as we were talking. I stopped for a moment, put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Emilio, look up!” We were the only two in the parking lot at that moment. Everything was covered in snow and crisply silent as the granite walls of the valley were turning pink with the rising sun. Emilio raised his head up and took in what was around him. He let out a very quiet but immensely powerful “Wow!” There was a long pause before he said, “This is the first time I have ever seen snow.”
I have witnessed so many children encounter their first snow in Yosemite through this program. However, this time was very different. It was Emilio’s energy that I found so impactful...Emilio’s appreciation of the moment is what I felt from him, his immense internal understanding of what nature provides in its simplicity and peacefulness.Michele Talvin, Yosemite Trip Coordinator
I have witnessed so many children encounter their first snow in Yosemite through this program. However, this time was very different. It was Emilio’s energy that I found so impactful. It was beyond the wonderment, excitement and awesomeness of what most students experience when they are seeing, touching, feeling, tasting and whooping over frozen powdery ice particles. Emilio’s appreciation of the moment is what I felt from him, his immense internal understanding of what nature provides in its simplicity and peacefulness. He walked quietly the rest of the way to the dining hall with his head up, his eyes taking in all the whiteness that surrounded him.
A day later Emilio experienced his first snowball fight organized by the group’s NatureBridge educator. During his time at NatureBridge, Emilio provided Annakah (his group’s educator), his teachers, chaperones and fellow students with courtesy, a new sense of self-esteem and a smile on his face every day. Emilio maintained a positive attitude and engaged with everyone in his trail group and with the games and assignments Annakah devised for the group. Within days, many of the students were commenting on how different and easy he was to be around. He became Emilio, a gentle giant of a soul with insights to offer, and his peers were ready to listen to him.
Emilio was the last student picked up at school after we arrived back on Friday afternoon. He watched as other students were greeted and hugged by their parents and siblings. When everyone else had gone, he waited patiently for his parents. They arrived with balloons, big hugs and a younger sibling jumping up and down to welcome him home. His mother was so immensely proud of him and truly thankful for the growth this experience brought her son.
It is my belief that programs such as NatureBridge enable kids like Emilio to come out of their shell and shine. I am always profoundly humbled to watch the magic that this curriculum and the introduction to the mountains, forest, waterfalls, rivers and life we call “nature” bestow on these young, impressionable human beings. Emilio completely embodied that transformation.
Photos courtesy of Michele Talvin