Sunset Magazine | City Kids Meet National Parks
December 21, 2015 - 4:08pm
“City kids meet national parks” 
When she first saw Yosemite, Cathy Albert was 10, a fifth-grader at Multnomah Street Elementary School in El Sereno, a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. She’d never been to a national park, and when her whole class got the chance to go for a week of adventure, she didn’t know what to expect. “It almost felt like a dream, like it couldn’t be real,” she says. Now in eighth grade, Cathy remembers marveling at Yosemite Falls. “I just stood there, looking at it.” 
Introducing Yosemite to a new, diverse generation of explorers--especially urban kids, like Cathy, whose father is of African American descent, and her classmates--is a critical mandate for the park service. And no one has been attacking this issue with more passion and success than NatureBridge, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that made it possible for Cathy to visit Yosemite. 
Founded in 1971 as the Yosemite Institute, NatureBridge annually sends 30,000 young people to six park-service sites. Heading the flagship Yosemite program is Kristina Rylands. She got the Yosemite bug when she was 10. “I had an epiphany at Tuolumne Meadows,” she says. “I saw all these people heading out with backpacks, and I wanted to go where they were going.” She’s been with NatureBridge for 10 years. 
“There’s a stark realization,” says NatureBridge board member Stephen H. Lockhart, “that engaging the next generation--and that means a much more diverse, broader segment of America--is the best way to preserve the parks in perpetuity.” 
Multnomah Street teacher Ken Ornburn makes the trip to Yosemite with about 100 fifth graders each year. Many in the school’s mostly Latino student body have never been outside of L.A. “Something changes,” Ornburn says, when the school’s bus passes through the Wawona Tunnel and emerges into Yosemite Valley. “The kids just can’t contain themselves. They’re blown away. They’re excited.” Some students set off scared, he adds, “but by the second or third day,” they are in love with this place.” 
The park experience has stuck with Cathy Albert. At her insistence, her family went to Yellowstone National Park; Cathy has also begun hiking in local parks. “Nature,” she says, “has become more meaningful to me.” 
—An excerpt from Dan Koeppel’s article “The People’s Playground.” To read the full article, pick up the January issue of Sunset Magazine at your local newsstand. 
In 2016, during the second century of the National Park Service, NatureBridge will bring more kids, in more places, to national parks. Our latest project, The National Environmental Science Center is an unprecedented project. It heralds a new era for science-based environmental education on a national scale by serving as a residential laboratory for modeling best practices and promoting innovation within the broader field of environmental education.
This project is not a dream; it’s a declaration. It’s a resounding commitment to conservancy, an investment in hundreds of thousands of life-changing educational experiences and their cumulative impact on multiple generations of young people. 
To become involved in this project, email