YTL group on geocaching trip at NC Arboretum, in wooded area

Summer 2022 Youth Education

This summer has been a busy one for SAHC’s youth education programming! Equity and Education Manager LaKyla Hodges and AmeriCorps member Laura Fraser spent the summer organizing and leading environmentally themed lessons and outings with the YMCA Horizons program and Youth Transformed for Life (YTL). Youth from primary school to teens enjoyed adventuring on the Nolichucky River, planting native pollinator plants, studying stream health, looking at plant anatomy, and so much more.

Former SAHC president and USA Raft owner Matt Moses and the staff at USA Raft hosted rafting experiences twice this summer, allowing the participants in our youth education program an opportunity to connect with nature recreationally. Students and staff aging from 4 years old through adulthood were able to spend a day on the Lower Nolichucky at the USA Raft facility!

We were also excited to partner with Josh Perkins, Environmental Education Specialist at The North Carolina Arboretum.  Josh led one of the youth groups in a geocaching hike at The NC Arboretum. Students were put into small groups and provided with handheld GPS units in order to locate the caches along the trails using coordinates.

“The summer programming has aided in the process of restructuring SAHC’s education programming,” says Education and Equity Manager LaKyla Hodges. “We are excited to build a more standardized curriculum around conservation and to create pathways to environmental stewardship and recreation.”

Over the past five years, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has been growing a unique youth education program in partnership with after school and summer camp groups. We host a variety of activities at their sites and then organize special outings to SAHC’s conservation areas around the region. Our after-school education program developed with a goal to broaden access to conservation, connecting with youth who might otherwise have limited opportunities to access outdoor recreation and environmental education.

SAHC’s youth education program focuses on partnering with after school groups who serve youth at community recreation centers in the Asheville area (such as Stephens-Lee Community Center), YMCA Horizons (a grant-funded program for students in grades 5-8 in the Buncombe County Schools), and individual organizations like Youth Transformed for Life, a training program that “creates bridges for children and families to overcome the current gaps of disparity”.

Staff Perspective: LaKyla Hodges, Equity and Education Manager

LaKyla standing in front of stream“Equity, diversity, and inclusion has quickly become one of the most talked about topics in the environmental world,” says LaKyla. “Since its beginning, the environmental movement has taken a community-based approach that largely revolves around rallying students, lobbying, and building a network of nonprofit organizations. Though this method is tried and true, several groups of people slip through the cracks. People of Color, low income populations, and rural communities specifically have been left out of these movements. As someone who has been exposed to environmentalism from a very young age, I can confidently say I didn’t have the opportunity to connect with an environmentalist who was a Person of Color or from a low income background until I was in college. Even then, the representation was few and far in between.”

“Because of this, I am so excited to have the opportunity to be the Equity and Education Manager here at SAHC,” continues LaKyla. “I’ve observed many successes and even more failures at inclusion in the environmental world. What I’ve learned is that several of the failures stem from the same set of issues; lack of communication, cultural fluency, and needs assessments. Meeting with communities, explaining the resources we have, and asking if and how we can work with them is a key way to implement effective programming to foster positive connections to nature. As a land conservation organization, our work doesn’t go far if the engagement is low. This is why we as an organization have worked to prioritize forming meaningful relationships with the communities we’re trying to serve.”

Former AmeriCorps Perspective: Laura Fraser – The Sensory Experience

Being an educator had its challenges but also came with the greatest of rewards. I loved getting to know each of my students individually – quirks, personalities, and all! I’ve learned how to cultivate and create lessons that are tailored to each group and in order to have a successful day.

It’s important to get to know your students and groups before anything else. Establishing a rapport with your students from the start is key to a successful school year and summer experience together. The first few weeks can be fun, low-key introductions where you can observe what does/doesn’t work with different groups. Some students love the active, physical activities while others may prefer to stay indoors and do a nature related art activity. It’s important to know what’s going to click with your students.

One thing I noticed during this service learning year is that students LOVE using their five senses during a lesson. This can range from food projects (smell/taste), making salamander slime (touch), bird walks (hear), or scavenger hunts (see). Most groups enjoyed anything to do with food. We made Dessert Dirt Cups where we learned about the layers of soil and salsa with in-season produce supplied by local farmers. In this activity students were able to see where their food comes from and how easy and simple it can be to grow the ingredients at home.

Younger elementary students (K-3rd) loved arts and crafts time where we made Nature Self-Portraits, and Flower Bouquet Cards. Older elementary students (4th-5th) enjoyed anything where they could run or compete with one another.

Sometimes just being outside in nature is all a student needs. Learning to read my students made me a better educator.