From: The Shenandoah National Park Trust
Contact: Susan Sherman, President, 434-293-2728,

Breaking down barriers between children and the natural world

On Saturday, September 19, 2015, a dozen kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia-Southwood will scramble onto a van and head to Shenandoah National Park for the weekend. For nearly all of these children, this will be their first camping trip. And they’re a little nervous.

“Are there tigers?”  “How big are the bugs?”  “Will I have to pee in the woods?” are some of the questions they asked earlier this year at the onset of a program that will culminate this weekend with their camping trip.

The “Big Camp Out” is the third component of “Step Up to the Great Outdoors: From Neighborhood to National Park.” The Shenandoah National Park Trust, in partnership with the National Park Service, launched this pilot program earlier this year. The goal of the program is to connect local underserved youth with their “backyard” national park through a series of experiences.

The Step Up program was borne following conversations between Boys and Girls Club executive director James Pierce and Shenandoah National Park Trust president Susan Sherman earlier in the year.

“James told me that the Club’s Forest Discoveries program was very popular. That program, under the leadership of scientist Diana Foster, integrates hands-on experiences in nature with the visual arts and creative writing. Diana felt that the kids were ready for a broader outdoor experience, beyond the patch of trees near their Charlottesville club house,” says Sherman.

“When I told James that the Trust funded week-long overnight camps for underserved youth in Shenandoah National Park, he was interested, but thought that a five-night camp would be too much, too soon, for his kids. I was having similar conversations at the same time with Jackie Bright, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge,” Sherman says.

The Step Up Program took shape from those conversations. “Our partnership with Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters is a logical one,” says Sherman. These organizations are dedicated to expanding these children’s horizons, and the Trust is dedicated to supporting programs in the national park that are impactful and transformational for children.”

The program has quickly become a cornerstone of the Trust’s Youth Education program. The Trust funds a continuum of opportunities for youth, ranging from in-park and in-classroom curricula for 4th and 5th graders to overnight camps for middle- and high-school aged children to national park internships.

“If we are not planning now for our own succession, who do we think will be coming up behind us to manage our national parks and to make critical decisions about land conservation and environmental quality?” Sherman posits. “We know that connecting children to nature is important for their emotional, physical and developmental health. But we must also be making these connections so that we have a passionate, informed generation of youth who will evolve into passionate, informed parents, decision-makers and leaders.”

A grant from The Charles Fund provided the seed money to launch Step Up this year in Charlottesville. The Charlottesville Walmart store donated camping supplies, including sleeping bags that each child gets to keep. Sherman says that with adequate funding, the Trust will expand the program with Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters and will include additional youth organizations and communities in the coming years. For more information, visit or call (434) 293-2728.