LandPaths program helps bridge gap between Roseland students and nature

“Inspired Forward” is a groundbreaking partnership between LandPaths and Roseland public schools to connect youth with nature and broader themes of leadership, stewardship and ecological literacy.|

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Hiking at a nature preserve northeast of Santa Rosa on a warm spring morning, students from Roseland Accelerated Middle School were unsure of their next move. Looking ahead, they saw their path continuing, but it was on the other side of a rapidly-flowing creek.

Obstacles are nothing new for these teens, many of whom journey through adolescence while facing challenges such as poverty, food insecurity and unstable home lives. Most of the student body at RAMS is Latino and qualifies for free or reduced lunches.

At Rancho Mark West, however, the teens found an actual barrier to their progress in the form of the creek flowing through a forest of tall trees, sparking nervous laughter from behind the face masks they wore due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The moment seemed symbolic of Inspired Forward, a groundbreaking partnership between LandPaths and Roseland public schools to connect youth with nature and broader themes of leadership, stewardship and ecological literacy.

All 480 seventh and eight-graders at RAMS and Roseland Collegiate Prep are eligible to participate in the program, which includes four field trips and instruction in science classes tailored to what the kids experience in the wild.

At Rancho Mark West this February morning, that experience boiled down at the moment to how the students were going to get across the creek without falling into the water and getting soaked.

Inspiring students to be stewards of the environment

Taking off her shoes, Jamie Nakama, LandPaths’ youth programs manager, stepped into the chilly ankle-deep water and turned around with her hand extended. One by one the teens descended into the creek bed and stepped gingerly over smooth rocks in their sneakers with Nakama guiding them along their way.

Of course, being teenagers, one boy stopped in the middle of the creek to show off a few dance moves.

As a first generation college student who grew up in low-income and “at-risk” communities in Hawaii and Minneapolis, Nakama holds a deep affinity for kids who don’t experience nature because of their life challenges.

“This is why I'm here,” she said before to the morning hike.

Nakama found her life’s work in the natural world and she now seeks to pay that forward by inspiring future generations to be good stewards of the environment.

“It’s so healing to have this connection with nature — healing not just for one’s self, but also for the planet,” she said.

The school bus carrying the Roseland students pulled into the St. Helena Road driveway of Rancho Mark West at mid-morning. The beloved nature preserve and former Christmas tree farm is only about a half-hour drive from Roseland in southwest Santa Rosa but feels much farther removed than that.

An outdoor adventure for everyone

The densely populated concrete jungle the kids are accustomed to had given way to a mostly forested enclave and a smattering of ranches and homes. The beauty was offset, however, by visible reminders of 2020's devastating Glass fire that tore though this community.

The sign at the entrance of Rancho Mark West was partially destroyed in the blaze, which swept across the 120-acre property.

Many of the teens were already reconsidering their choice of long-sleeved hoodies as they disembarked the bus and assembled in a circle near a detached garage for the day’s orientation led by Nakama.

One group of students would be starting the day’s adventure by heading toward an historic barn on the property to play team-building games. The other would be going in the direction of a pond for meditative journaling, followed by a lung-busting hike up the hill to put down mulch around redwood saplings planted in the wildfire’s aftermath.

Hiking through a grassy meadow following the creek crossing, 13-year-old Alina Magana said she was feeling inspired “to help out more in the community and make the trees grow more and make plants more alive so we can take care of our earth and make it a better place.”

Magana said her parents are usually too busy working for the family to spend much time in nature. Her dad is an airplane parts manufacturer and her mom works in food services for the Roseland school district.

Access, resources for the community

Nakama works directly with principals at the two Roseland schools to coordinate the Inspired Forward outings. The schools pay for transportation and to subsidize other parts of the program, which also receives funding from Sonoma County’s Measure O tax measure and the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District.

LandPaths founder Craig Anderson originally conceived Inspired Forward in 2012, in the wake of the horrific Sandy Hook school shooting to help foster community and belonging for Sonoma County youth through time spent together in nature.

Nakama said kids from underserved communities often don’t have access to nature because their parents lack the resources or time to venture out.

“They’re not going camping, hiking or to national parks. They simply haven’t been introduced to it, or they don’t have the time,” she said.

Nakama noted the diversity of the LandPaths staff, including young people of color and those who are bilingual in English and Spanish.

“It’s so important for these kids to have a mentor in the field who looks like them and speaks the same language,” she said. “They can see themselves as part of the conservation or environmental community.”

The Roseland students learned about the history of the property starting with the Indigenous tribes who were here first, and about how the Southern Pomo and Wappo peoples used low-intensity fires to remove thick underbrush and dead wood to lessen the risk of catastrophic blazes. The practice evolved over time into fire suppression.

Learning, spreading knowledge

In 2020, the Glass fire torched more than a million feet of board wood at Rancho Mark West despite a decades-long effort on the part of property owners Jim and Betty Doerksen to reduce the threat. LandPaths now stewards the property alongside the Doerksens.

LandPaths recently coordinated a huge volunteer effort to plant 4,500 redwood saplings within the burn scar to help offset environmental damage wrought by the blaze. Without the new trees, fears are that sediment could empty into Mark West Creek as a result of hillside erosion and threaten steelhead trout.

The creek, which originates about 6 miles west of St. Helena in Napa County and meanders for miles before emptying into the Russian River near Steelhead Beach, is one of only a few tributaries of the river that still supports a healthy population of steelhead trout.

Atop the hill, Jesus Lopez and Dylan Cebezo, both 13, worked with Gadiel Arena, 14, to spread mulch around redwood saplings.

“It’s fun because we learn about trees and plants,” said Lopez, who mentioned that he rarely gets out in nature except to visit a dog park with his family.

Michael Healy, the 8th-grade language arts and U.S. history teacher at RAMS, remarked on how some of his students who’ve gone through Inspired Forward are now passing along knowledge they’ve gained to the next group of students entering the program.

“They really loved being able to take a little bit of nature, learn it, and then pass it on to someone else. It was a pretty powerful moment for them,” he said.

Time out in nature also has proven emotional and psychological benefits for this age group, especially in light of the pandemic, which has dramatically exacerbated mental health problems, according to health experts.

Along the banks of the pond, teens sat by themselves to write in their journals. One of the writing prompts was “The Rose That Grew from Concrete,” a poem written by Tupac Shakur.

Did you hear about the rose that grew

From a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong it

Learned to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,

It learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

When no one else ever cared.

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

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