Urban teens get lessons in nature, life at first-ever youth summit on Sonoma’s coast

Kids build self-confidence by experiencing nature on its terms. S’mores over a campfire also help.|

Emma Kehr sat cross-legged Friday morning on a massive redwood log nudged into the banks of Willow Creek near Jenner, joking with her new friends as they scrambled over the man-made barrier that was keeping it stable for them.

Stability is something Kehr has not had a lot of in her 16 years. Bounced around to foster and group homes, the teen currently resides with her grandmother near Santa Rosa's Roseland neighborhood.

But out here in nature, communing with other teens who are experiencing their own life challenges, brought Kehr a sense of comfort, much to her surprise.

“It's really amazing, honestly, the community we are building in only a day,” she said.

Kehr is one of 14 teenagers who are participating in this weekend's inaugural Youth Environmental “Artivist” Summit, a four-day crash course in wilderness survival, personal growth, environmental activism, biological sciences and the art of roasting the perfect s'more over a campfire.

Prior to this weekend, most of the teens had never spent much time in nature, much less overnight in tents. The group is camping at Pomo Canyon Environmental Campground, situated in a redwood grove where cell reception is almost non-existent and the yelping of coyotes is sometimes the only noise disturbing the silence.

Peter Morales, a 15-year-old from Windsor, said he was nervous at first when he bedded down the first night on Thursday to sleep in a tent, given his fear of the dark.

“But I calmed down and slept really well,” he said Friday morning as he and the group hiked a deer trail through a meadow overgrown with pennyroyal, nettle and other plants.

The event is organized by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, which works in conjunction with California State Parks and the Raizes Collective, a Santa Rosa non-profit that inspires personal achievement and community activism through the arts, culture and environmental education.

The teens are participating in a number of workshops led by presenters from a variety of non-profits geared toward resource stewardship and management, community organizing and the arts. Among the highlights of the weekend's schedule is the painting of a mural depicting spawning salmon on a bridge over Willow Creek.

April Moran Reza, a bilingual outreach coordinator for Stewards who spearheaded the summit, said the event is geared around the concepts of “education, exposure and environment.”

Moran Reza said she took inspiration from Sal Castro, a Southern California Mexican-American educator and activist who promoted getting kids out of their urban environments as a way of fostering connections with nature.

The teens had to apply to attend the youth summit. Preference was given to those who had never experienced nature on almost any level, said Isabel Lopez, executive director of the Raizes Collective.

“We wanted to select kids who had never been camping before,” she said.

Tromping around Willow Creek, Miguel Pineda, a 17-year-old junior at Roseland Prep University, called the setting “beautiful.”

“I never really go out,” he said.

Sequoia Etcheverry, programs coordinator for Stewards, led Friday's excursion, which focused on the vital role salmon play in the health of Willow Creek, which flows nearly nine miles from Coleman Valley to the Jenner estuary. Efforts have been made to make the creek more hospitable for salmon, including putting in redwood logs to foster a more complex stream channel with larger and deeper pools.

“Before these logs, this was like a bowling alley,” Etcheverry said. “Do you think this creates a good salmon habitat with all that water whooshing around?”

At one point, Andy Bunnell, a social worker with Greenacre Homes & School in Sebastopol, pointed out a large bay tree that had fallen over, and a number of saplings that have begun springing up on the trunk.

“You get knocked down in life, what do you do?” Etcheverry said.

“You get back up,” Morales, the Windsor teen, said.

“Just like nature does,” Etcheverry said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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