Thanks to generous grants from Great Outdoors Colorado, Nature Kids is bridging barriers to outdoor access for Lafayette kids.
By Courtney Johnson
Photos courtesy Nature Kids
With four national parks, 42 state parks and 13 national forests, Colorado is often referred to as “nature’s playground.” However, low-income and Latino residents in Lafayette face barriers in connecting with nature and the outdoors, according to a 2016 yearlong study of residents aged 5–40. In response to these findings, Nature Kids/Jóvenes De La Naturaleza Lafayette was established in 2017, with the goal of removing such barriers.
The program—funded by 2016 and 2020 grants from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO)—connects underserved Lafayette youth to nature and outdoor activities year-round through three strategies: capital construction projects, paid employment/career training and no-cost integrated programming that includes in-school programs, after-school programs and field trips through all Lafayette schools, as well as family “backyard to backcountry” experiences.
“Nature Kids community members expressed a desire for natural areas to feel more welcoming and safe, and a desire to have a way to learn more about them,” says program director Angela Meyers. “They wanted a way to feel like they could belong in these spaces, too.”
As the study showed, though, access is complex. Quantifiable expenses for necessary gear and program costs can be seen, but many barriers are less obvious. “There is a whole other layer,“ says Meyers, that Nature Kids is able to address. “It has to do with knowledge, identity and a sense of belonging.”
Nature Kids accomplishes its goals by serving 1,200 community members annually, resulting in a total of 10,000 participant experiences a year. Recently completed projects include The Discovery Zone at Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer Elementary and the Inspire Trail. A two-acre space at Pioneer Elementary was transformed into a nature play area with obstacles to climb, water to splash in and natural features to explore.
Keeping with the organization’s goal of ensuring that all Lafayette youth live within a safe, 10-minute walk of a nature space, the mile-long Inspire Trail connects the eastern portion of Lafayette to Old Town, allowing children and families to safely access the Discovery Zone and ride or walk to school. COVID-19 has slowed the progress of other projects, including the largest—a $1 million nature play area and neighborhood connector trails at Alicia Sanchez International School.
Nature Kids also offers career training and paid employment for middle- and high-school students in Lafayette. Opportunities include work with the Environmental Education Corps and the Nature Kids Advisory Board, where kids can explore nature-based career paths, learn leadership skills and participate in research within their backyards. Teens in the program also help to mentor younger residents, fostering a stronger sense of community. “Frequent and repeated experiences near the home are most beneficial for anyone connecting with nature,” says Meyers. “Maintaining consistency and connection to the community with so much uncertainty right now is our priority.”
For Rosa Gutiérrez and her family, originally from El Salvador, Nature Kids offers bonding activities and new ways to explore the state they now call home. “In our nineteen years here, we haven’t known anything except just working and working,” she says. “But now, we get to interact with our children and we get to know more about Colorado.”
Summer programming will continue at Nature Kids with reduced numbers due to COVID-19 guidelines. Masks and social distancing will also be enforced. Specific guidelines will be given at each event/camp.
Day Camp for elementary-age youth.
Overnight Camp for middle schoolers and high schoolers.
Family Weekend Camps at Cal-Wood Education Center, with opportunities to fish, mountain bike, hike and learn about fire restoration.
Single Day Projects/Community Events, including restoration work around the city of Lafayette and a bike festival.
Check the online calendar for more information and dates throughout the summer. For more information on how Nature Kids is positively affecting the Lafayette community, head to naturekidslafayette.org and sign up for the newsletter while you’re there.