Celebrating 20 years of connecting Tucson youth to nature through photography

Celebrating 20 years of connecting Tucson youth to nature through photography
Photo by Mauro, age 10 (Source: Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - This fall, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson (BGCT) and the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation (Udall Foundation) celebrate 20 years of partnership on the Stewart L. Udall Parks in Focus® Program—an education program of the Udall Foundation that connects youth from underserved communities to nature and our nation’s public lands through photography and outdoor learning.

Since 1999, Parks in Focus has put cameras in the hands of more than 725 middle school-aged youth from the BGCT and guided them on approximately 3,200 hours of after-school, weekend, and summer adventures in settings ranging from city parks to the Grand Canyon.

“We strive to help at-risk youth develop solid plans for their futures by achieving academic success, becoming good citizens in the community, and making healthy lifestyle choices,” said BGCT CEO Debbie Wagner. “Parks in Focus helps us achieve our mission with our kids and has added great value to our organization for the past two decades.”

The Parks in Focus program kicks off each January with a series of after-school activities held at each of the six BGCT locations in Tucson and Saturday field trips to visit, explore, and photograph sites like Agua Caliente Regional Park, Saguaro National Park, Tumacácori National Historic Park, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. These activities lead up to introductory weekend camping trips to settings like Mount Lemmon and Chiricahua National Monument. In the summer, the most engaged participants from the school year get invited to participate in one or more 5-day and 6-day camping trips to Sedona, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon.

“For many of the BGCT youth we engage in the program, Parks in Focus provides their first opportunity to visit a national park, to camp overnight in tents, to hike, and to really connect with nature,” said Wagner. “Without this partnership, most of our Club Members would not otherwise have these kinds of opportunities.”

Parks in Focus uses photography both as a tool to promote environmental learning, and as a creative outlet for participants to document and reflect on their new outdoor experiences. The program’s unique curriculum teaches introductory photography concepts—such as focus, perspective, composition, and lighting—as well as how to use those concepts to explore the natural and cultural history of the sites visited.

Throughout the program, participants meet and work alongside park rangers, professional photographers, and staff from the Udall Foundation as they sharpen their photography skills and learn about the importance of national parks and other public lands.

“Parks in Focus offers a comprehensive photography and outdoor learning curriculum with solid educational outcomes,” Wagner said. “The way the program combines learning about digital photography while exploring nature really interests our kids and encourages them to be enthusiastic about new experiences. Through the camera they can observe so many details about their surroundings and use their creativity to capture any given scene. The photos also offer memories of their experience to share with others.”

Photo highlights taken by the youth participants are featured on both the Udall Foundation and the BGCT social media platforms as well as in exhibitions around town. Photos taken by the program’s 2018 participants are now on display through November at the Western National Parks Association’s National Parks Store in Tucson.

“Partnerships have been vital to the success of Parks in Focus. Over the past two decades, we’ve grown from a small pilot project reaching 12 kids each summer into a comprehensive, year-round program that reaches approximately 500 local youth annually,” said Udall Foundation Executive Director Phil Lemanski. “It all started here with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson. Without this partnership, Parks in Focus would not have realized its potential.”

Today, the Udall Foundation hosts Parks in Focus programming with nearly two dozen other youth organizations—including Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, YMCAs, and schools—throughout Tucson and around the country. These partnerships are reaching nearly 1,000 kids per year across the different program sites. The program is made possible in part through grants and donations received by Western National Parks Association, the official nonprofit partner for Parks in Focus.

“Twenty years later, photography remains an effective and relevant way to engage youth with the outdoors and with our nation’s public lands,” said Lemanski. “Ultimately, we are striving to inspire the next generation of public lands visitors and stewards. Our future is bright.”

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