Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains.
For nearly 30 years, the Santa Monica Mountains Fund (the Fund) has provided support to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Southern California. Through sponsoring research projects, internships and outreach programs, and providing funds to their national park partner, the Fund seeks to enhance the park agencies’ efforts to preserve the natural resources and hopes to connect nearby residents to the more than 500 miles of trails that are an hour's drive from Los Angeles.
One program they support to connect youth to the mountains is the Youth Ambassadors Program (YAP). A program managed by the National Park Service (NPS), the Fund financially supports YAP which recruits, trains and leads a group of seven to ten high school students over the course of three months and teaches them interpretation, communication and leadership skills in and around public lands and sustainability.
Once trained, these ambassadors spend time with the public, educating visitors about the area and offering tips on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly and become better stewards.
“Knowing how to speak to people and to be confident in the information they’re providing is really important,” said Charlotte Parry, Executive Director of the Fund. In a short amount of time, these students are interacting with the public and offering suggestions on where to hike, how to be careful around wildlife and why the recreation area is so important.
The Youth Ambassadors from the fall cohort go rock-climbing as part of their team-building training.
Vanessa Torres, Supervisory Park Ranger with the NPS and manager of YAP, went on to explain that the students receive mentorship from the beginning and that a significant portion of the training is geared to helping them become leaders.
“It’s not just about them helping the NPS with our work to educate the public,” Torres said. “We want these students to understand what we do, what the Fund does, and we want them to engage with their park… As students get older, they spend less time outside because they have more responsibilities between school, work and activities. We want to help them stay connected to their park.”
At the end of the program, the students also develop a tangible product that reflects what they have learned and that encourages the protection of natural resources. This fall’s ambassador cohort developed an educational brochure highlighting the health benefits of green spaces in an urban setting, and translated it into three different languages Spanish, Mandarin and Istanbul Turkish) to reflect the diversity of the Los Angeles area, as well as the diversity of the students themselves.
According to Emily Zepeda, one of the participants from this fall's YAP cohort, the experience has helped her gain more awareness about the park and about people's relationship to it.
“Being a part of this year's Youth Ambassador Program has made me more aware of the barriers that persist within my community. Through volunteering, I saw first-hand the lack of basic outdoor knowledge in teens and kids. I witnessed the disconnect between urban communities and nature with our national and state parks. I realized that many people have not experienced nature in the capacity that I've been lucky to. By creating a brochure about the benefits of venturing outdoors with my YAP cohort (and helping translate it into multiple languages) I hope to help break down the barriers that exist between urban communities and the natural environment. I hope to help my community come to explore and love the outdoors as much as I do," she said.
Creating an Engagement Pipeline through Opportunities for Youth
The Fund and the NPS also work to engage youth at an earlier stage through the Every Kid in a Park program (EKIP). A national program that brings fourth graders and their families to public lands for free, the Fund and NPS partnered last year to bring nearly 15,000 fourth graders to the mountains as part of this initiative. Over the last two years, 46,000 schoolchildren attended a range of outdoor education programs in the mountains and in Los Angeles, including the EKIP program.
The Fund helps with associated costs of transportation and supplies and works especially to bring underserved students from Los Angeles and Ventura counties to the moutains.
Even beyond their partnership with the schools, the Fund actively supports engaging youth through funding internship programs, artists in residence programs and offering volunteer opportunities for youth throughout the year.
A group of fourth-graders enjoying their trip to the mountains through the Every Kid in a Park program.
How SAMO Fund and NPS Connects Youth and Families to Public Lands
According to Vanessa Torres, some of the biggest barriers for families visiting the mountains includes knowledge of the resource, what to do once they get there and access to transportation. In addition, many people feel uneasy about wildlife such as coyotes and mountain lions, and do not feel that the area is safe for them.
Programs such as the Youth Ambassadors Program, student education programs, and scheduled hikes are ways through which the Fund encourages awareness in youth so that they can help educate their families. Over the years, the Fund has supported larger events in the park such as the Rec Fest (a recreation-focused event) and Science Fest. As part of these events, the Fund has provided transportation to bring families from the city to the mountains so they can get a taste of their local national park. In addition, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area provides a free transportation program from various locations within Los Angeles to the park.
Safety in the mountains is a major concern for both the Fund and the NPS. Every outdoor program starts with a safety briefing, which is emphasized throughout. The Fund also supports the park’s Nature Neighbor program that seeks to help people understand how to live and interact with urban wildlife. In addition, the Fund employs an urban wildlife specialist who goes into the community to talk at events and Homeowner’s Association meetings.
This outreach helps people understand how to stay safe with regard to coyotes and other wildlife and to ensure that they remain wild. By providing safety to information to people of all ages, the NPS and the Fund hope to encourage the whole family to visit the mountains and to be responsible stewards.
As for the Fund's focus on supporting youth initatives, Charlotte Parry explained that young people play a critical role in protecting the mountains.
“These lands are here for the next generation to look after. If they don’t have that sense of ownership, what will happen to these places?” she asked.
To learn more about SAMO Fund and to support their work, visit https://www.samofund.org.