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Messages to the future: Park Service, outdoor camp work to mold diverse new generation of outdoor enthusiasts

Messages to the future: Park Service, outdoor camp work to mold diverse new generation of outdoor enthusiasts

The air on the Cataloochee Divide Trail is heavy with humidity and the promise of an afternoon storm, but the pervading mood is contrastingly buoyant as a group of 27 teens and their leaders sets out on a sunny Thursday morning. 

It’s a tone that Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had set before anybody left the trailhead.

“This is a fun day,” he’d told the group, composed mainly of Hispanic students in the midst of a week of camp with Maggie Valley-based Outdoor Mission Camp. “I want to get a chance to meet each one of you.”

Cash who joined the group with his daughter Tasé and the park’s backcountry management specialist Christine Hoyes, was visibly working to keep his word as the group set out. The trail undulated through the densely verdant hardwood forest that extends from the meadow-bordered parking area at Purchase Knob, and Cash moved from spot to spot in the line of hikers, chatting up the campers with questions about their families, their goals in life and their experiences at camp. 


Food for the soul

If it looked like he knew what he was doing, it was because he’d had some practice. The hike’s end would bring Cash up to 64 miles for the year of hiking with groups of kids who’d had scant outdoor experience in their lives. His goal is to log 100 miles before the year is out, in recognition of the National Park Service’s centennial year. But the program is about more than honoring a governmental anniversary. For Cash, instilling kids — especially those without easy access to the outdoors — with a love for nature is a personal passion. 

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Cash, who grew up in Memphis thinking of the woods mainly as a setting for horror movies and Bigfoot sightings, remembers well the first night he ever spent in the woods, working his first job in the natural resources field. He also remembers the looks his friends used to give him when he’d say he was headed out to spend time in the woods — on purpose. 

“They’d say, ‘Man, you crazy,’” Cash told the group. 

For Cash, the park’s first African-American superintendent, those days are long gone. Now, he credits the outdoors with saving his life, both from a medical standpoint after being diagnosed with high blood pressure, and from a spiritual standpoint. 

“I took to the trails because I got more than just good exercise,” Cash said. “I got food for the soul.”

As superintendent of the nation’s most-visited national park, Cash is using his platform to extend that experience to as many people as possible. When the Park Service was first created, half of the country’s citizens lived in rural areas. Now, only 20 percent do. Exposure to and comfort with the outdoors — and, by extension, the national parks — is becoming less of a given. Fear of the unknown can be the biggest barrier to accessing these mountaintop experiences. 

“It’s no different than when you learn how to drive for the first time,” Cash said. “Someone has to tell you what to do and what not to do. The Park Service wants to be that entity for the first time kids get out in the woods.”


Bonding through language

Joshué Cueva, 17, had barely set foot on a hiking trail before he came to OMC for the first time last year. It was 2015, the inaugural year for La Adventura, a week of camp specifically aimed at getting Hispanic youth outdoors. A visiting pastor at Cueva’s church had told him about the camp, and he signed up to go. 

That first time, he said, “I was nervous and excited, but coming the second time I was just excited.” 

Where he lives in Charlotte, buildings and roads dominate pretty much every view. Rock climbing, mountain biking and canoeing have been new experiences for Cueva, but he’s discovered the peace they bring with them. The mountains have brought him closer to God, he said. 

“What I like most is all the green, no buildings,” he said. “It gives you a different view — you feel better.” 

There’s a comfort in the shared culture of the campers, too. La Adventura draws people from Columbia, Charlotte and everywhere in between, and the chatter is a hodgepodge of Spanish and English. Cueva, who’s lived in the U.S. since he was 5, speaks English with as much facility as his native Spanish, but holding onto that first language and the culture that comes with it is important to him. 

Cueva’s family is Ecuadorian — his parents immigrated to the U.S. in 2002, leaving Cueva and his younger brother in Ecuador with friends and family until 2005, when the children joined their parents in the U.S. Cueva started first grade in America, faced with learning a new language in addition to phonics and math facts. But he soon found himself speaking English quite well — perhaps too well. His Spanish began to slip, and his mother was upset to see her son forgetting his native tongue. 

Cueva didn’t want to forget. He began flicking on Spanish soap operas as a way to keep the language fresh. 

“That’s how I got my Spanish back,” he said. 

Coming to camp solidifies that bond with the language, except instead of talking just to Ecuadorians he gets to hear Spanish flavored by any number of accents — Puerto Rican, Honduran, Guatemalan and Columbian, for starters. 

“I think it brings us closer together,” he said. 


Opening opportunities 

Jamie Shackelford, who runs OMC with her husband Ruffin, is tickled to see how well La Adventura has been taking off. The camp is part of the larger organization Youth For Christ, which runs ministries all over the world — the Shackelfords have invested years into relationship with people in Latin America through their work with the organization, and they have a heart for the Hispanic community. 

They also have a passion for the outdoors, and looking around they saw that there weren’t really any camps like La Adventura out there, designed to get Hispanic kids connected to God and nature. The camp’s inaugural year in 2015 was a smash hit, drawing 52 campers. This year, OMC intentionally reduced the number to 32, with camp spread out over two sessions in an effort to make the experience more relational.

“There’s a key, and that is scholarships,” Shackelford said. 

More than half of the La Adventura campers come on full scholarship, with OMC operating from the belief that it can’t fulfill its mission if it turns kids away because of money. The retail value of a week at camp is hundreds of dollars, more than many families whose children would benefit from the experience can afford. 

“Camps really cater to upper-class and upper middle-class kids, and those kids already have all the opportunities in the world,” Shackelford said. 

Coming to camp, completing personal firsts like sleeping outside or walking in the woods with food and shelter loaded on their backs, and meeting people like Cash who have overcome the odds to do incredible things in life, has an impact on kids, Shackelford said. It’s about a lot more than just learning how to paddle a canoe. 

“Being exposed to a whole new culture and a whole new world opens up new opportunities in a kid’s life,” she said. 

That can happen even through very simple realities, like eating. When you’re out on a backpacking trip, you have to eat what’s in front of you, or not at all. The experience shows kids that they can try new foods, and they can survive without hamburgers and hot dogs. 

Christian Torres, 19, remembers well the nervousness he felt the first time he slept outside. But it soon faded, and he was able to see the beauty of the experience. 

“When you sleep, you hear the wind in the trees and you wake up with the birds,” he said. 

For campers traveling from outside the U.S., the OMC experience can be even more earth-shaking. 

Omar Muñoz, 27, of Columbia, had been planning to come last year but couldn’t get a visa. This year, he was successful, and he’s been with OMC all summer long for volunteer training. He’d never been to the U.S. before, and he struggles with English. But the experience has been amazing, he said, breaking down his stereotype of America as the land of big cities and money and leaving him with a passion to take what he’s learned about environmental conservation back home to Columbia. 

“In this place I can learn, and after I will go to my country and I can help other people,” he said. “In Columbia the people need to be more intelligent with the places because Columbia has beautiful places, and the people don’t respect those places.” 

Carlos Rosil, 27, of Guatemala, also came for the summer as a group leader. He agrees with Muñoz’s observations of North Carolina’s beauty and admiration of the way the land is cared for. 

“God speaks through the woods,” he said. “It’s a wonderful experience. I don’t have words to describe it.” 

For Cash, nothing else could be a better outcome. 

“These are messages to our future,” he said, “so I feel honored to have a part in delivering that message.”



Give OMC a boost

Outdoor Mission Camp, and affiliate of Youth For Christ, offers 12 weeks each summer of outdoor camps designed to connect kids to God and to nature. 

Camp themes include outdoor experiences for kids with special needs, an adventure camp for Hispanic teens, a wilderness discipleship program, and more. OMC tries to open its doors to kids regardless of economic situation through scholarships, and donations are always welcome to continue extending those opportunities.


Not too late to hike 100 

Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash is getting his 100 miles of hiking in alongside groups of kids who lack opportunities to explore the outdoors, but anyone who enjoys the park is invited to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial by hiking 100 miles of trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

The Smokies Centennial Hike 100 Challenge aims to inspire all potential hikers — young and old, new and skilled — to experience and gain a new appreciation for their national park.  

To complete the challenge, participants must hike 100 miles of maintained trail inside park boundaries by Dec. 6, whether it’s backcountry or frontcountry, all different trails or repeated hikes of the same trail. Those who complete the challenge will earn a commemorative pin and an invitation to a celebration hosted by Cash. 

Funded by an $11,000 Active Trails grant from the National Park Foundation, made possible by Coca-Cola and the Coca-Cola Foundation, and support from the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies. 

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