Seattle’s Every Kid in a Park Collaborative addresses some of the barriers that keep low-income youth from accessing public lands.

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There is a burst of whispered interjections — “Whoa!” and “Cool!” — when the kids see the rows of snowshoes sticking out of the snow.

Earlier, in a brief in-class presentation, ranger and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest youth and community engagement coordinator Tessa Rough showed photos of the snowshoes. But most of the Index Elementary School students have never used snowshoes before this field trip, despite their school’s proximity to Stevens Pass.

The snowshoeing excursion is part of the Seattle Every Kid in a Park Collaborative. The collaborative launched in 2015 with five original partners — the Washington Trails Association, Islandwood, NatureBridge, the Mount-Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, and the Seattle Area National Park Sites. Their goal was to locally support the national program Every Kid in a Park, which offers free, yearlong public-lands passes to fourth-graders and their families.

Since then, the group has grown to include 11 partners. With funds from the National Park Foundation, they’ve hired former National Park Service ranger Casey Andrews as project coordinator, and expanded programming to include Mount Baker and Stevens Pass ski passes for fifth-graders, overnight excursions for sixth-graders, and a joint mentorship and internship program with the Seattle Area National Park Sites for high-school and college students.

This year, the group is focusing on schools that receive federal funding through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title 1 provision, which grants assistance to schools with the highest percentage of students from low-income families. Seattle Every Kid in a Park has targeted 24 such schools; Index is one of them. For the group, this necessitated identifying barriers that often keep underserved communities from engaging with public lands. One of the more significant challenges, according to project coordinator Andrews, has been navigating sociocultural and economic divides.

“One of the schools we work with … 20 percent of their students are homeless,” says Andrews, who recalls walking into Seattle’s Lowell Elementary and thinking about an article that included a photo of a Lowell student sitting under a sign reading: “No child sleeps outside.” “[T]hat is their goal, and for us to go into that and say, ‘Hey, this is great, we’re all gonna go sleep outside, we’re all gonna go for a hike,’ that’s the opposite of what they’re looking for. So I think it’s really important to share with kids the good opportunities, the fun that can be had, and just a different perspective on the outdoors, and that takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of steps.”

With this year’s focus on Title 1 schools, it’s likely that the collaborative is working with homeless students on a regular basis. During the 2016-2017 school year, roughly one in every 13 Seattle Public Schools students was homeless. According to data provided by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, 16.2 percent of students enrolled in Seattle’s Title 1 schools are homeless; in Seattle schools not receiving Title 1 funding, that figure is 4.6 percent.

“Sometimes I’ll ask, ‘Oh, why haven’t you used your pass?’ and [we get] the answers we expect — transportation, or Mom and Dad have two different jobs,” Andrews said. “And so that’s why I think the collaborative is just really important, because we’re able to work with these kids during the school hours and get them outside multiple times.”

Thanks to transportation grants from the National Park Foundation and a diversity of resources among the collaborative’s partners, Seattle Every Kid in a Park has been able to support teachers and provide students with free public transportation to Seward Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. They’ve also loaned students weather-appropriate gear and snowshoes through partners with access to gear libraries, like Bainbridge Island Metro Parks and Rec and the Washington Trails Association.

For Andrews, who grew up in Sri Lanka during that country’s civil war and found solace and community outside, making the outdoors more welcoming and inclusive is personal. When she turned her love of nature into a career at Olympic National Park, she had recently come out as gay and feared the National Park Service would not welcome her. Instead, she found the opposite to be true when she learned that the National Park Service celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month. But she realizes that her own experience may not reflect the way that kids from other backgrounds might feel about the outdoors.

“Working with kids from all different backgrounds has now taught me that being outside does not always bring to mind a welcoming and safe place,” she says. “Based on people’s perspectives, culture and experiences, the outdoors can have completely different connotations. My goal, and the goal of the Seattle Every Kid in a Park Collaborative, is to be culturally responsive, to listen to our community, and do our best to make sure the next generation feels welcome and safe in their public lands.”

Kenyatta McCaskill is in fourth grade at Seattle’s Hawthorne Elementary, one of the Title 1 schools targeted by the collaborative. He may not regularly visit national parks on his own, but getting outdoors is a daily experience for him. According to Kenyatta, his mother, Samona Burleson, takes him to a park near his house almost every day.

“I don’t think they’ve ever gone two days in 10 years of life without going to a park. We’ve always lived by a park. I love being outside, and so… I make sure they’re outside all the time,” Burleson confirms.

Because a brain tumor removal surgery has kept her from driving, Burleson says she also appreciates the school trips that have taken Kenyatta and his twin sister, Samaya, to parks that are further afield.

“It’s been difficult for me to do things and take the kids places that are really far off, but I think that if I had the transportation to get there, it would perhaps make it a little bit easier … and you know we have the passes now, the fourth-grade passes, where we can, you know, go to different national parks,” says Burleson. “It’s just about making the time to get there and having the transportation.”

Kenyatta and his classmates most recently took a Seattle Every Kid in a Park field trip to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a museum and designated national park in Pioneer Square. They’ve also gone snowshoeing in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and taken field trips to the Seward Park Audubon Center.

Kenyatta’s teacher Chris Simmons says the snowshoeing trip was the kids’ “most eye-opening adventure.” Snowshoeing was a new experience for most of them, says Simmons, and months later, he often still hears his students talking about the trip.

For Nova McCray, another fourth-grader at Hawthorne, the snowshoeing experience at Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest had a real impact. “I was really amazed that we were actually going snowshoeing,” she said. “I usually just go to a museum. Snowshoeing! That’s fun!”

Since the field trip, Nova has used her Every Kid In a Park pass to go snowshoeing again with her aunt and cousins. But she says her favorite moment so far was the unplanned lunch break her class took in Waterfall Garden Park in Pioneer Square after their morning at Klondike.

A diversity of experiences with parks is one of the reasons that the trip to Klondike is important to the collaborative’s work, Andrews says.

“We wanted to make sure we were connecting with the next generation of stewards, and by doing so we wanted to make sure that they get to see a really good diversity of public lands and they get to decide what works best for them,” she said. “So some people might feel really at home at a historical park, other people might want that snowshoeing adventure, others might want to go for a small hike or walk in a city park. And just so that they know there’s all different types of experiences. You don’t have to climb a mountain to go to a national park. You can go right downtown in Seattle and check out Klondike Gold Rush.”

Like Nova, Kenyatta knows that he can get a taste of the outdoors in unlikely places. “In doing all these field trips, one thing I learned is that no matter what, no matter where you go, you can always find nature,” he said.

This post was updated May 16 at 3:10 p.m. to reflect the chronology of Casey Andrews’ role with the National Park Service. She is employed by a partnership between Klondike Gold Rush National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and is no longer working as a park ranger.