What's better than the sound of a child’s laughter? The laughter of 50 children echoing through the colossal boulders of Joshua Tree, California, in honor of the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service. The 100th birthday of the NPS technically falls on August 25, 2016, but the country is celebrating year-round. And that gave Coleman USA the perfect excuse—not that they needed one—to do something profound for the Boys and Girls Club of America. The camp gear company donated $30,000 worth of materials to the organization, so underserved youth could help ring in 100 years for the NPS and experience camping in a national park for the first time ever. Here's a secret: It was my first time camping out in a national park, too!
Feeling far away from my hustle-and-bustle New York City stomping grounds, I applied sunscreen, laced my kicks, and tossed an awkwardly packed pink suitcase into the back of a huge van. In the company of other editors, I was off to celebrate the excitement of the weekend.
Dust clouds followed our van to the campsite where we unloaded our bags and became instantly absorbed by the magic of the evening. The kickoff to the event was an emotional ceremony where a check representing the donation from Coleman USA was presented to the Boys and Girls Club of America. The kids gathered around their tearful representative and raised their fists in the air, cheering. There wasn’t a dry eye in the middle of that desert.
I figured next up would be some mandatory science lesson about the rocks (erosion, anyone?) or a stick-rubbin’ 101 on how to build a fire, but none of that happened. These deserving children were simply given a safe space to be free and wacky for one night with the option to learn at different discovery stations. The entire night (and yes, we did stay up slightly past the “lanterns out” call-time) the kids were bursting with joy and laughter.
The kids were able to rock climb with professional equipment and spotters—most of them did slap on a harness, make it up the rocks and come back down with an ‘I-can-accomplish-anything’ kind of swag. The boys and girls stargazed, looked at the craters of the moon through a mega telescope, played tag and lawn games, explored the rocks, learned about different animal skins, and hosted glow-in-the-dark hula hoop competitions.
As a nighttime chill replaced the desert heat, singer/songwriter Dani Strong alerted the troops to pick their spots around a crackling fire. Volunteers passed around bowls of graham crackers, marshmallows and milk chocolate, and kids quickly figured out how to take turns and make S’mores. I watched their eyes light up as they bit into the melty goodness—then, I bit into mine as the sun set behind the mountains.
The campfire singing went on for hours—some kids hung around the smokey fire the entire time, while others played together nearby. As the fire turned to a smolder, all you could hear was the sound of small, tired feet shuffling back to their tents.
After sunrise, I woke up to the sound of kids—wide awake!—who wanted to make the most of their last day in the desert. The day started with hearty breakfast burritos and ended with a rock-scrambling hike in Rattlesnake Canyon. During the hike a national park ranger, Christian Delich, guided us to different stop-points for fun info sessions. One of the coolest things about exploring around in a National Park is learning about America's history and nature. It's a two for one!
The weekend was thrilling for the children, humbling for Coleman USA, and a deep reminder for me of how crucial it is to encourage the connection children have with nature, and to never underestimate the power of simplicity. The great outdoors gives kids a space to be free, feel brave and competent, explore, and learn self-trust all while forming special memories that will last a lifetime. Talk about a positive impact!
As for me? I’ll definitely be venturing out into the wild outdoors more often—and I hope to bump into your tribe when I do...
Dana Baardsen is the social media editor for Parenting.com and Fitpregnancy.com