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Picture this: A group of middle school students is standing in a circle in Yosemite Valley, wearing backpacks. Their adult leader introduces the day’s activity: hiking part of the Mist Trail, the popular route that leads to Vernal Fall.

One student raises his hand and asks, “What’s a hike?”

The middle schoolers are in Yosemite on a Parks in Focus® camping trip — and the questioner’s situation isn’t unique. Many of the kids who participate in Parks in Focus have never hiked, camped or visited a national park.

Through Parks in Focus, a long-running Udall Foundation program, middle schoolers explore nature through the lens of digital photography. Parks in Focus provides creative, curiosity-stoking outdoor experiences for kids in Arizona, California, Michigan, Montana and Oklahoma; in 2019, the program celebrated its tenth year of immersive experiences in Yosemite.

“Parks in Focus uses photography, a tool that children are comfortable with and can take with them long after they leave the national park. Participating in the program has given them, quite literally, a different lens through which to view the world and the memories and photos they captured during their experience will help further foster the positive relationships they developed and lead the way to future experiences in nature. As an environmental educator, there is really no greater goal to have achieved than that.”

— Megan Anzuini, 2015 Parks in Focus Yosemite trip leader

A decade ago, Parks in Focus partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula — which serve young Californians in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and Menlo Park — to bring an inaugural group of “Yosemite in Focus” students to the park for a five-day summer camping trip. The Conservancy started supporting the program in 2012; that same year, The Ansel Adams Gallery, in Yosemite Valley, hosted its first Parks in Focus exhibit showcasing participants’ photos.

The inaugural Parks in Focus exhibit at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley.

Over the next six years, with support from our donors and continued close collaboration with the park and gallery, Parks in Focus tripled the reach of its Yosemite program by establishing partnerships with two more Bay Area youth organizations (Sequoia YMCA, in Redwood City, and Real Options for City Kids, in San Francisco). Today, Parks in Focus provides three Yosemite camping trips for Bay Area middle schoolers each summer, as well as activities closer to home to help students prepare for and reflect on their time in the park. And in addition to the annual exhibit in the Valley, participants can now see their photos on display in shows at Bay Area venues.

“When I gave the kids their cameras for the first time, they were always so excited to start. They received so much validation from learning that their photo was a quality one and that it could inspire other people to visit places such as Yosemite. The technology of photography is familiar and something that the kids can control in a place that is so unfamiliar and wild. … They also became more bold in their photographic style. They became more experimental. They would show me these photos of one of the most photographed places in the world that I had never seen before. I have worked in Yosemite for the past three summers, yet I felt myself falling in love with the park all over again through their eyes.”

— Mirella Gutierrez, 2017-18 Parks in Focus trip leader

Photography anchors the Parks in Focus curriculum. Over the past decade, nearly 250 students have learned to capture compelling shots of sunsets and wildlife; to frame images using natural features; and to use their camera lenses as tools for observation, whether zooming in on butterflies and flower petals, gazing up at gnarled bark, or stepping back to get a wider view. Together, they’ve taken thousands of photos throughout the park, from the Valley’s verdant meadows to Tenaya Lake’s sandy shore.

A Parks in Focus student shows off a photo she captured during a Yosemite trip.

But the Parks in Focus experience goes well beyond teaching kids to use a digital camera. During their five days in Yosemite, students learn from park rangers and professional photographers; explore ecology, geology and conservation; get hands-on experience setting up tents and “Leaving No Trace”; complete stewardship projects, write poems and earn Junior Ranger badges; and build connections with their natural surroundings — and with one another.

Parks in Focus students leave the park with new perspectives and confidence. Past participants have written about conquering a fear of heights while climbing Sentinel Dome, learning how much they love being in nature, and wanting to teach family and friends about the importance of protecting the environment.

“I taught the kids how to set up tents, taught them how to speak respectfully, taught them to get their photos in focus, taught them about biodiversity, ecological succession, the rule of thirds, the names of trees, the sound of the red-winged blackbird… — the list goes on for a week’s worth of moments. … I don’t know when I learned that taking a picture of some aphids on a white flower could teach a child more about biotic interactions than all my leading questions. I don’t know when I realized how powerful photography is in giving kids an eye for natural beauty, and that the cameras were a way for the kids to be proud of their interactions with the natural environment. I don’t know when I learned that laughing together in nature helps us fall in love with it, or that watching a child taking a picture of dandelion seeds dispersing with the wind is something I’ll always remember… I don’t know exactly how it all sank in, but it did.”

— Yari Greaney, 2013 Parks in Focus leader

In honor of a decade of “Yosemite in Focus,” we’re sharing a few of our favorite snapshots of and by program participants. Explore the gallery below, and look for Parks in Focus on Flickr to see even more photos!

Want to check out Parks in Focus students’ work in person? You can see exhibits featuring participants’ photos at the San Francisco International Airport (Terminal 1, through January 20, 2020) and at the Palo Alto Art Center (November 2019). And if you’re planning a summer trip to Yosemite Valley, don’t miss the annual Parks in Focus showcase at The Ansel Adams Gallery, which is typically held in July.

Thanks to our donors for supporting this program, and to everyone who makes the Parks in Focus experience so powerful, including the teams at the Udall Foundation, Yosemite National Park, The Ansel Adams Gallery, Sequoia YMCA, Real Options for City Kids and Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, and, of course, the amazing students who take a chance on an opportunity to learn and grow in a new outdoor space!

All photos in this post are courtesy of the Udall Foundation.