Taken by Alexandra, age 12, at the Desert Museum in Tucson

Eleven-year old-Danielle: "I want to be a ranger like Melanie and work with kids at camps and tell them stories."

Twelve-year-old Vaeda: "I want to be a photographer like Adam because I want to travel, and I like how he uses light and dark in his photos."

Eleven-year-old Anissa: "I want to be a poet like Iris, and I want to teach the kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs how to write haikus."

Because of the Udall Foundation's long-running Stewart L. Udall Parks in Focus program, Vaeda, Anissa, Danielle and over 400 underserved middle schoolers have expanded their "what I want to be when I grow up" list to include careers related to conservation and art. Not only that, but in the first six months of 2011, 175 of those youth have collectively logged over 350 outdoor hours exploring forests, streams, bogs, desert trails, mountain glaciers, and immersing themselves in some of our country's most spectacular national parks and public lands in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Montana.

Tucson youth participants of Grand Canyon in Focus on the Colorado River near Glen Canyon Dam

What effect have those 350 hours had on our middle school participants? Informal surveys taken before and after our immersion trips find Parks in Focus youth:

  • Receive a quality educational experience (100%);
  • Learn new things about environmental science: ecology, geology, etc. (100%);
  • Learn new things about art and photography (97%);
  • Have a better understanding of what it means to be an environmental steward and public servant (97%);
  • Would recommend the program/experience to their friends (97%);
  • Want to have an opportunity like PIF again (97%);
  • Gained confidence in their skills and abilities (97%);
  • Are more interested in the outdoors than they were before PIF (97%); and
  • Are more active now than before PIF (88%).

The youth themselves have a lot to say about Parks in Focus:

I am so glad that there are people like you that really care about the great outdoors and that are making an effort so that other people can appreciate nature too. I think that this organization is really cool and that it helps young people look at the fact that technology isn't everything in life. –Lucia, age 11

The word I would use to describe the Grand Canyon is "special" because I am the only one in my family who has ever seen it. –Derrick, age 11

One of my favorite things we did was photography because we learned different things every day. Thank you for everything you have done for me. Most of all, thank you for choosing me to go, giving me the opportunity to have fun, and giving me a camera. –LaMarrisha, age 12

Parks in Focus connects underserved youth to nature through the art of photography. The Udall Foundation manages the program by organizing outings to local natural areas and immersion trips to awe-inspiring national parks. These excursions all combine a well-honed photography and environmental education curriculum with active, hands-on adventures guided by passionate and knowledgeable leaders and mentors—many of whom are alumni of the Udall Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship Program.

For middle school youth who rarely venture beyond their neighborhoods, Parks in Focus can open windows of story-telling and self-expression; it can spark a new interest in science and nature; and it can, ultimately, change lives.

Tucson, Ariz., is home to the flagship program and an exciting new community development initiative the Foundation hopes to expand in coming years.

To view photos from the Parks in Focus trips, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/parksinfocus/collections/.

In addition, the program started the first-ever Parks in Focus blog this summer. The blog features commentary by youth participants, trip coordinators, and partners. Catch up on all the fun adventures and subscribe to the blog at http://parksinfocus.wordpress.com/.

For additional information about Parks in Focus, please email Melissa Millage, senior program manager, at millage@udall.gov.