by Jamie B. Matyas, President/CEO, Student Conservation Assoociation
As the nation seeks to unite after a contentious presidential election, areas of shared commitment should be prized and pursued. One of those areas is the increasingly important role of public lands in or near urban areas. President Donald Trump previously donated land in the New York City metropolitan area for a state park, and Hillary Clinton had called for the revitalization of more than 3,000 city parks within 10 years. Their actions highlight the value of public land and its growing importance in proximity to urban areas, and they could form the foundation for productive community engagement.
Monique Dailey, Youth Programs Manager for the Washington, D.C. Area at the Student Conservation Association (SCA), was 10 years old before she saw her first “real park” and says that she didn’t realize at the time that “it would be my salvation from the drugs and violence that were ravaging my community.”
She became a Junior Ranger in the National Park Service, then a volunteer at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, and finally an SCA crew member in Rock Creek Park before volunteering on a national crew at Salmon Challis National Forest in Idaho and interning for a summer. When it came time to apply for college, she had 750 volunteer service hours with SCA and a glowing recommendation to the Admissions Director.
AmaRece Davis had a similar experience in Homewood, one of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods. When two of his older brothers went to prison for murder, he saw himself “heading down that same dark path.” Then he got a break. He started working with the SCA, building trails, clearing brush and planting trees around Pittsburgh. That enabled him to join an SCA crew at Sequoia National Park in California, surrounded by giant sequoia trees.
“I sat at the base of one of these giants on my 18th birthday,” he writes, “and thought about all of my friends and relatives who had never been out of Pittsburgh and of others who hadn’t even survived to be 18. I came home a different person. I had found something larger than myself, figuratively and literally.” Ama Rece has gone on to attend community college and complete several SCA internships, and recently became a Pittsburgh city park ranger.
The conservation of parks also provides skills that can enhance job and career opportunities. Research conducted by the renowned Search Institute revealed that SCA participants develop such valuable traits as “expressing ideas, engaging others to reach a goal, responsibility for the greater good, sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and more.” These skills all enhance one’s ability to succeed in life and in careers. That’s why it’s so important that urban residents as well as rural ones reap the benefits of America’s public lands.
Enhancing our nation’s parks and ensuring that their upkeep benefits everyone can become a point of community and national unification.
About the author: Jaime B. Matyas is the president and CEO of the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.