It’s been getting harder and harder these days to be positive. To dig down deep and find reasons to get up and continue doing what I love best. I am an environmentalist. I do conservation work, specifically guiding under-served youth by taking them out in nature. I teach them how to appreciate the outdoors in their own capacity. I teach them about climate change and the importance of caring for our lands, and the spaces that many of us hold dear in our hearts.
In the last two years, it has felt like the planet is under attack. Frankly, it is. The attack however, has been going on for decades, and has gone widely ignored or unnoticed for far longer. Recently though, as more and more regulations have been rolled back, as sanctions meant to protect our Great Lakes have been lifted, as large-scale polluters have been given carte blanche, and as the federally protected lands I love have been reduced and carved away to allow larger interests to use for their personal gain, I find it very difficult to keep myself charged and motivated.
How am I supposed to explain to these students that our efforts often aren’t enough? What kind of hope does that give them? These kids need hope. So many of them never had any to begin with. Their lives are hard, and the fact that they make it to school is a small miracle in itself.
I have students who have dropped out, and popped back in. I have students who have lives of horror you cannot imagine, horrors that are just their everyday lives. My mission has always been to give them a place of solace in the outdoors. To learn techniques that ground them by teaching them coping mechanisms that are free and simple to utilize.
The students I work with are amazing. They surprise me every day with their quick wit, intelligence, fortitude, and desire to work towards their goals. Their hearts can be so kind despite being sometimes broken. They have come up with their own service projects to help others at their schools, to protect wildlife habitat, and have spent countless hours in the woods with me just learning to breathe deeply and be aware. They overcome every day and struggle through. I have realized that I must do so as well.
So how do I find the hope in this catastrophic world? How do I explain to them the atrocities that are going on, while still trying to instill in them a sense of purpose and resolve to keep trying? The hope, I have found, has to come from within myself. I have to find joy in my life and magnify it so I can radiate it out towards others. The joy has to come from being with people, and from spending time in the spaces that make me feel connected to the earth. My joy simply has to exist so I can share it. It doesn’t always matter where it comes from.
When I am happy despite the dire news daily of climate change, despite the devastating wreckage Mother Nature is forced to enact due to human activity, my students are taught something important. That when things are beyond your control and you are doing the best you can, it’s okay to still be happy. You HAVE to be. The light that shines within me is not a light that is ignorant of the state of things. It is a light that shines because I have accepted that I am doing what I can and I deserve to love the little things.
The beauty I find in my partner’s strengthening love, or the rays of pride that make me tear up as I watch my daughter grow to be a strong and independent person… that’s where I get my hope. When I eat a vegetable from a garden I have tended, when the creatures in my yard use the habitat I have created for them, and when a rare bird comes to enjoy the feeders of suet I set out for them, these are the bits of joy.
The passion I hold for the work that I do will come out every time I speak. It always does. It’s okay to show the sadness within that passion too. But the hope must exist. I am trying so hard to continue showing that hope to others. Find your hope, and share it.
We could all use it right now.
-Andrea Foster, Community Programs Manager- Little Forks Conservancy
Dr. Gina Wilson is the principal at Windover High school, an alternative high school participating in the Nature/Nurture program from The Little Forks Conservancy. The program works with teens at local alternative schools to teach them conservation, connect them to the outdoors and learn the importance of volunteer service. We caught up with Wilson as well as student Haley Hammond, who is entering her second year with the program, on the impact it has made.
Q: Gina, can you tell us why did you decided to implement the Nature/Nurture program at Windover?
A: I'm always looking for new opportunities for my students and I'm very interested in exposing them to opportunities that will allow them to prioritize self-care in their life. Understanding self-care entering the adult world is so important. These students will eventually stop relying on adults in their lives to help calm them down, instead relying on themselves. When they get stressed out, they learn through this program that taking a hike is something that calms them or allows them to process things effectively.
The program also gives students an understanding of their place from an environmental standpoint. They see that nature is a resource and they build a respect for it. They reconnect to it. As kids we played outside, and we don't realize that's why we are happier and less stressed during that time in our life. It's during that childhood time we spend more time with nature, so reconnecting students to that is vitally important.
Q: Haley, why did you decide to take part in this program?
A: Well, my best friend Kayleigh asked me to do it with her, and of course if your best friend asks you to do something challenging, you just do it. It was the best decision I could have made.
Before I joined the program, I was very stressed out, in part because my best friend was graduating and I had a lot of anxiety. Doing something like walking in the woods, I didn't know it could be helpful in relieving negative thoughts and stress. So, it brought a lot of good things into my life and replaced or helped me deal with bad things.
Q: Gina, can you talk about your relationship with nature?
A: This is something I have just realized about myself! Nature grounds me in two different and important ways. One, it takes me away from being so self-important to realize things are part of a much bigger picture. I can stand outside and see how expansive the earth is, how steady nature is and it gives me peace to know that everything natural has been happening for a while, and everything will be okay.
The second is that it gives me a sense of tranquility. The different colors and sounds connect to my senses. I'm somebody who as soon as I see a field of grass, my shoes are off. I'm connecting from the top of my head to the tips of my toes and it connects my whole body to what's important, which is those simple moments.
Q: Haley what do you now enjoy about nature that you wouldn't have before?
A: Quite a bit, actually. Like Gina said, as a child I grew up always outside, but as I got older though, I was always connected to some sort of technology. I also didn't know that going outside with a group of friends could be so fun. It's always nice to go out and see birds you have never seen before – now when I go outside and see a hummingbird, it's so exciting! I would never have thought I would look at a hummingbird and say "Wow, that's so fascinating." It has definitely changed my perspective for the better!
Q: Haley, what is something new that you learned about yourself during this program?A: Just that I love nature now. I also make sure to take plenty of walks at home. Mostly alone because I like the quiet, but if I had to choose someone to hike with, it would be with my sister.
A: (Gina) And from my perspective as her principal, I have noticed a major difference in her! She has more energy, she's not gloomy, where before she didn't want to be around people. Now she doesn't mind people, but if she does isolate it's for a different reason. It's to focus and be more goal-driven.
Q: That's great! What is something you now want to try because of this experience?
A: I want to tour the world, but most of all I want to help people succeed at their dreams and do volunteer work to help get people where they want to be in life. Being connected to nature has really allowed me to realize this.
Q: Haley, do you think that being outdoors can have an effect on your mental health?
A: Oh definitely! I have depression and anxiety, so being outside surrounded by different colors, even that can help me change mentally and physically. It absolutely helps relieve my anxiety.
Q: What would you tell your classmates if they were on the fence about joining Nature/Nurture?
A: I would say there's nothing wrong with trying. Trying will get you somewhere, but staying behind your own shadow and fears won't get you anywhere.
A: (Gina) I would like to say to any other educators who are considering this program for their school – that I know we are ALL busy. I know that our basic goal is to deliver content to the students. But implementing and giving students access to a unique program like this creates more self-monitoring and motivation in students and enhances their ability to do what they are here to do on a daily basis. It gives those students new tools and a new perspective. Schools are a learning environment and if a student hasn't been exposed to nature as a resource, then that's a learning opportunity. To me, it's a perfect fit.