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.