In June 2016, President Barack Obama brought his family to Yosemite, becoming the first sitting president to visit the park in more than 60 years. Much of the media attention focused on his Saturday speech, which covered climate change, conservation and the importance of our public lands. But for the rangers working behind the scenes, some of the most exciting moments of the weekend happened far from the presidential podium.
Jessica Rivas is a Wilderness ranger at the UC Merced Wilderness Education Center, a program supported by Yosemite Conservancy donors. As one of the rangers working to help implement President Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative in the Yosemite area, she has spent a lot of time teaching local elementary school students about nature and our national parks. Jessica was invited to help lead a program for a group of fourth graders during the president’s visit.
We’ll share her story about that memorable weekend, but first, a bit of background from Jessica, who describes herself as passionate about teaching:
I’ve been working with students since I was in fourth grade. I used to volunteer in classrooms over my summer break, and led leadership programs in high school.
Jessica’s friend Alejandra (Ale) Guzman joined her to lead the fourth grade programs. Ale became a full-time ranger in Yosemite after completing the Yosemite Leadership Program and serving as a student ranger at the Wilderness Education Center. She loves her job, but never imagined she’d have the chance to see the president while working in the park.
On the afternoon of Friday, June 17, Ale and Jessica stood side by side in a line of rangers waiting for the first family. Ale wasn’t expecting to meet them, but was hoping to witness the historic moment when President Obama set foot in Yosemite as the fifth sitting president to visit the park. With the motorcade of SUVs blocking her 5-foot-1 view, however, that hope seemed to evaporate. When the helicopter landed, Ale assumed the president would be whisked into a car, and that would be that.
Here’s Ale’s account of what happened next:
On Saturday, Ale and Jessica headed to lower Yosemite Fall to meet the fourth graders. Secret Service agents checking their bags found some unusual supplies: animal pelts (including one from a skunk) and bear scat, all props for their lessons. When they arrived, the kids were abuzz about the president’s speech scheduled for later that morning. Here’s Ale again:
When the president and first lady came over, we had the students demonstrate what they had just learned about scaring away bears. The Obamas handed out a park pass to each of the students (as part of Every Kid in a Park, fourth graders get free entry to federal lands and waters) and led a round of singing for a girl who was celebrating her birthday.
Jessica, usually at the front of the group, stood back to take it all in:
With their lessons finished, Jessica and Ale’s next official job was to get all the fourth graders over to Cook’s Meadow to see the president’s speech. But before that, Ale recalls, they had a challenge to meet.
“Do you have your phone?” Jessica asked. I handed it to her. The president was walking by us. “Go, go, go!” I whispered to Jessica. “Mr. President, is it okay if we take a selfie with you?” she asked. “Of course!” he replied. The excitement in our faces said it all. We felt so fortunate!
While getting to meet and take a photo with the president was an incredible experience, Jessica says that one of her favorite parts of the day came later, when she and Ale were waiting with the students after the president’s speech at Sentinel Bridge:
In reflecting on the weekend, Jessica adds a note of thanks to Conservancy donors for supporting the programs that helped shape her path.
Thanks to Ale, Jessica and all the other current and former Youth in Yosemite participants who are doing their part to change the world as rangers, educators, and dedicated stewards of our public lands — and to our donors for making these programs possible!
Main image, above: © Al Golub