Teva Explorer and photographer Abi LaFleur-Shaffer spent a week with Grand Canyon Field School to see how the national park sparks wonder and thirst for learning in the next generation. Words and Photos by Abi LaFleur-Shaffer
A horizon of oranges, purples, blues, and reds greet me with a sense of familiarity. This is deja vu. Years ago, as a 7-year-old, I soaked in the same vastness of the Grand Canyon as I was now in the dusty air and desert breeze. Except for this time, my head pokes just above a group of rowdy and unsuspecting pre-teens, wearing blindfolds, being led slowly and safely into a neat row, fixed before the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park. As their blindfolds were removed, their gasps and “whoas!” joined in on nature’s sounds and filled the hot air around us.
You see, only two out of these eleven kids had ever been to the Grand Canyon, despite growing up in Arizona. Witnessing their pure moment of wonder was as if I were seeing it for the first time, and that was truly special for me.
This was one of countless a-ha moments during the five days I spent photographing and learning along with a group of bright, rascally, and enthusiastic (with a dash of rowdy) kids attending Grand Canyon Field School. This partnership program between Grand Canyon Conservancy and the National Park Service offers educational experiences for youth, learned in the depths of Grand Canyon National Park.
The kids that I explored, laughed and studied canyon conservation with were some of the many youths who have received scholarships to attend the program, funded in part by Teva’s $100K donation to the Grand Canyon Conservancy.
Upon arriving at Grand Canyon National Park, I was transported back in time to a place I haven’t been to in years. I met kiddos whose heads fit perfectly under my armpit and played “get to know you” games that brought floods of memories back to me. I was blasted to the past and suddenly found myself as a kid again, losing all expectations of what was to come that week.
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When I say I felt like a kid again, I’m not messing around; seeing the wonder spread across their eyes reopened a new eagerness for learning within me. I was psyched to learn about what makes the Grand Canyon the Grand Canyon. For days to follow, with dirt speckled ankles, sweat dripping from my forehead, and fresh freckles from the desert sun kissing my face, I played and laughed with these kids at one of the wonders of the world.
Kids show off their flossing moves on a grand stage.
Delilah (who is of Navajo descent) shared that while exploring the Grand Canyon, she experienced its deep “peace and beauty.”
We learned about the geology of the different rock layers that make up the canyon and the strength and fortitude of the Colorado River that forges its way through it. We learned about the ecology of the canyon and how the river is helping to sustain the vast amounts of life found in the area, from the conservation of condors to the carpenter bees curiously making their way around.
Grand Canyon Field School in session.
The kids learned about the different rock layers within the Grand Canyon.
Following in the footsteps of explorers, map-makers, and Native peoples who documented before photography, kids observed and sketched the plants and different elements they observed on their nature walk.
I watched these children throw their hands up, eager to ask questions, eager to glean an understanding, and eager to do their part in a way I rarely see adults participating. That eagerness, that desire to learn and be shown, then given the opportunity to do it themselves, is what can help change our world for the better. Little did I know that these kids would be educating me, reminding me who I am and how I want to continue to see the world around me.
It was in these humbling moments I remembered my own privilege—the opportunities and the endless access I’ve had—with a mom, dad, and friends that helped me create memories like fishing, backpacking, hiking, and rock climbing. I was given opportunities that would fuel my passion for the environment and the desire to protect and celebrate it. It’s something I took for granted.
Don’t get me wrong—I was raised by a single mom for eleven years, remembering most of my meals were rice and beans or heated chicken-pot-pies. Sometimes we couldn’t even afford groceries. I understand what it is like to not have something, but in some funny twist of events, I was given opportunities and access to the outdoors despite my lack in other areas. My heart drops when I truly sit on the thought that others don’t have that access to the outdoors.
With those feelings, I believe in feeling them. Truly and deeply feeling them, and then choosing to act with conviction and humility. This experience made me realize the importance of youth environmental and educational programs and how I want to support those efforts and leaders through advocacy.
One night, one of the kids, Peyton, asked to take a photo with my camera. I was a little bit reluctant at first but figured why the hell not. I showed him how to work it and it was as though it was second nature to him. He then went on to tell me that his way of connecting with nature was to ride into the outdoors with his camera and take photos.
I’m still impressed by what he and another shutterbug named Austin captured (some of their images appear in this story), and I saw a spark go off. For the rest of the trip, Peyton was really psyched on photography and kept talking about how he was going to invest in a new camera so he could continue capturing images. I saw potential in him, and what better way to help someone live their potential than to harvest it, even in tiny ways.
Another night while star-gazing with Kelly, one of the camp counselors I came to be fond of, we talked about our hopes for the outdoors and Native American women. Kelly is a beautiful Navajo girl who has a strong love for her horses and is in the process of creating a star-gazing program that teaches about the Navajo and how they use the stars. We shared our hope that other Native women will be represented in the outdoor community, highlighting that they refuse to live by others’ stereotypes.
I discovered a few years ago that my family is of Navajo and Apache heritage and since then, I was left wanting to understand that piece of my life that I wasn’t fully aware of. The opportunity to connect with strong and brave Native American women (such as Kelly), and learn from their experiences has not only been an honor but also has assisted in my rediscovery of who I am and where I come from.
Camp counselor, Kelly.
Through conversation with a handful of these wonderful kiddos, I came to learn that the way each kid connects with nature, in general, was very different and unique. Some simply enjoy sitting outside, and others thrive on hiking, camping, fishing, and exploring. The Canyon Field School experience helped deepen their respect for their environment, as well as inspired them to get outside more.
Gaining this deeper understanding of the Grand Canyon—this vast 1 mile deep, 277 miles long natural wonder and its inhabitants—and doing it alongside this group of kids, strengthened my passion for protecting it, conserving it and leaving it better for those to follow. I can really only speak for myself and my experience, but I’d be lying if I didn’t believe that it could be the same for others, especially children.
I saw that instilling a love and an understanding of the environment truly does begin with children. Providing access to nature in an educational and inspiring way could be one of the (many) keys to making a positive impact on preserving the environment and a large impact on kids’ lives for the long-term. Not only telling them that it matters but showing them why it matters.
I went into the week as a photographer to document their experience and it evolved into a serendipitous, humbling and impactful experience for me. Seeing their potential and the unique skills each of them possesses was inspiring. It reminded me of the wonder I had as a kid, the wonder I still want to possess and sharing that wonder with those around me. I walked away with a bunch of young buddies who reminded me of what this world needs—it’s them.
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