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CONNECTING WITH NATURE & OURSELVES: Reflections from Colorado Legacy Camp

About the Author

Mike is Assistant Director of C&NN’s Natural Leaders Network. For nearly 20 years Mike has worked to connect environmental and social justice, particularly within faith communities. He has served on the staffs of the national Episcopal Church, Earth Ministry, and Seattle University's Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability. Mike has edited/partially authored three books: Simpler Living, Compassionate Life; Food and Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread; and Money and Faith: The Search for Enough. He lives in Seattle, enjoys most anything outdoors, and enjoys ice cream as much as any kid out there.

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In September of 1992, as the aspens’ leaves turned to gold, I strapped 180 pounds of food and gear to the backs of our two llamas, Alex and Ama, and hiked 15 miles into Yosemite’s Rainbow Canyon. I was working with a wilderness backpacking outfit and resupplying a group of young adults midway through their trip.

After the resupply, on the way back to the trailhead, hiking solo and light, I was struck by an experience with aspen trees that has, in some respects, transformed the rest of my life. I felt as if my perception of “separateness” between me and the aspen grove slipped away. It was a moment of timeless grace. Grace, because it was all a gift. Timeless, as only an intense relationship can be.

So, this past September, as the Natural Leaders Network team prepared to lead our first regional Legacy Camp in Colorado, I carried with me a hopeful, even confident, seed of anticipation. For we were headed into aspen country as their leaves turn to gold. Powerful things can happen. Let’s provide the container— of a Legacy Camp— to nurture that potential.

Colorado Regional Legacy Camp

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Legacy Camp is the Natural Leaders Network’s signature three-to-four-day leadership training program for diverse, emerging leaders between the ages of 18 and 29 years old. As a relatively new staff member, this was my first Legacy Camp. I wasn’t only excited about the aspen leaves; I was also looking forward to experiencing the training firsthand.

Held at Keystone Science School in the mountains west of Denver, the Colorado Legacy Camp drew 28 young adults together from across the state. The majority of the participants represented communities engaged in Great Outdoors Colorado’s Inspire Initiative, a five-year strategy aimed at inspiring Coloradans, particularly kids, to appreciate, enjoy, and take care of the state’s great outdoors. Participants came from many different backgrounds and communities. Sixty percent of the participants identified as Hispanic, 32 percent as Caucasian, four percent as Native American/Caucasian, and four percent as Nigerian-Igbo. They came from 16 communities from across Colorado: Saguache to Fort Collins, Lamar to Grand Junction, Greeley to Antonito, Pueblo to Leadville, Denver to Hotchkiss, Leadville to Lafayette.

Leading from the Head and the Heart

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Natural Leader and CO Legacy Camp trainer Asnoldo Benitez leads participants in a session on Personal Narrative. This session includes how to use storytelling to build momentum and inspire change.

One of the qualities that drew me to the Natural Leaders Network and Legacy Camp is that the curriculum not only includes teaching styles that speak to different learning styles, but it also recognizes that we learn both cognitively and emotionally, with our heads and with our hearts.  The four curricular pillars of each Legacy Camp are:

  • The Power of Personal Narrative;
  • Leadership IQ;
  • Community Organizing; and
  • Action Planning.

Those are the hard skills, the specific topics.

Just as important, and our fifth pillar in a way, are Legacy Camp’s rituals:

  • The anonymous recognition and “thank yous” slipped into the ”Kudos Box”;
  • Time for personal reflection;
  • Daily check-ins and conversations with small groups;
  • A reflective and just-plain-fun campfire;
  • An outing, time spent together outdoors; and
  • The theme of nature-connectedness.

The Legacy Camp curriculum seeks to reflect and embody the simple truth:  a training program that seeks to reconnect others to nature must also reconnect all of us to our own true nature and to recognize that we are at our best when our whole selves are expressed and valued.

This acknowledges that our emotional, mental, spiritual, physical selves all have something to learn. And that our body, our heart, and our head have valuable things to offer.

Giving Thanks: Partnerships and Networks

At Legacy Camp, participants work together to identify community needs and develop initial action plans to begin to address those needs. Crucial to the success of any of those action plans is the weaving together of partners into a network of organizations and people whose missions align with the overall goal of creating a world in which all children learn, play, and grow outdoors.  

Just as the health of any ecosystem is dependent upon intact, complex, and nearly innumerable relationships that comprise that ecosystem, the strength and resiliency of any network is dependent upon intact, growing relationships among the network. Remove even one of those relationships and the network is diminished, less resilient, and less adaptable.  

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The Natural Leaders Network that is now established in Colorado is dependent upon and grateful to a large network of organizations and individuals, especially: Jackie Miller, Matt Brady, and Erika Meyer of Great Outdoors Colorado; Luis Benitez of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office; our host, Keystone Science School; Scott Segerstrom from Colorado Youth Corps Association; Tracy Gripp from Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and Katie Navin from Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education. Without them, and others like them, the Natural Leaders Network would not be possible.

I am grateful to be one part of this growing network. Grateful that though the Natural Leaders Network can’t promise a transformational experience at Legacy Camp— can’t promise that the sense of separation between ourselves and one another, or between ourselves and the rest of the natural world, will slip away—we do often find that something special happens, something powerful. Indeed, Natural Leaders leave Legacy Camp with:

  • A network of peer support;
  • Tools to guide their community work;
  • Knowledge that they have leadership skills they can offer to their communities;
  • A deeper recognition that some communities face significant barriers to developing positive relationships with the rest of the natural world;
  • Stronger connections to organizations and people that can provide support and assistance as they seek to reconnect children and families to nature.

And that is powerful.  It is also increasingly important at a time when our communities face larger and seemingly more intractable ecological and social challenges.

During this season of giving thanks, I am personally grateful to be connected to people and organizations, to staff colleagues, and to over 250 Natural Leaders— all of whom care that we not become a culture so disconnected from the rest of the natural world that we turn into a culture that does not care for “the other.”  A network that realizes that when we care for “the other” — whether a grove of aspens or a child with scarce access to green spaces— we are caring for ourselves. Which, to say it in another way, is a network of people that understands that “the other” is really not “other”—and that the “separateness” we often feel is not the deepest reality.


Additional Reading & Resources from C&NN
MAKING FRESH TRACKS: Natural Leaders from the Arctic Circle and Urban Los Angeles Partner Up
FROM ALASKA TO AUSTRALIA: A Global Odyssey to Connect Kids with Nature
NATURAL LEADERS LEGACY CAMP: One Young Man Decides to Give Back the Way His Father Did
BEYOND LEGACY CAMP: What C&NN’s Natural Leaders Do When They Get Home
WE’RE READY! C&NN’S Natural Leaders Pledge to Support National “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement

Additional Reading & Resources

Natural Leaders Initiative
Natural Leaders Network Facebook Page
Great Outdoors Colorado
Keystone Science School
Colorado Youth Corps Association
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Fresh Tracks video from the August experience featuring the Natural Leaders Network
Every Kid in a Park Initiative

Photo Credit: CJ Goulding, Pexels

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