Nature as Healer, Muse, & Teacher: An Inspiring VIP Event for Banff Adventurers and Sponsors

With the Banff Film Festival just two weeks away, SNPT staff, Trustees, partners, and Adventurer ticketholders gathered at Charlottesville’s Kardinal Hall to kick off the festivities!

The evening was full of conversation around all things Shenandoah, nonprofits, adventure, and youth engagement. The highlight of the event was a panel discussion between Appalachian Conservation Corps (ACC) Director Zach Foster, ART 180 Deputy Director Nicole Jones, and Elk Hill Prevention Services Coordinator Liz Knotts: “Nature as Healer, Muse, & Teacher – Youth Programming in Shenandoah National Park.” The three panelists discussed how they engage young people in their communities and create pathways to Shenandoah, whether for educational opportunities, mindfulness activities, or manual labor.

Jones told attendees about ART 180’s collective mission and described the impact a trip to the Park had on a group of teens she brought on a three-day camping trip.

“This year, in Shenandoah National Park, it was just like magic to see the young people activated,” Jones emphasized. “They were relying on each other, looking out for each other. The power of them being in that space to use their voice, to rely on their own intuition, and to trust where they were even though it was an uncomfortable space they didn’t really know anything about… it really showed us why this is so needed and so necessary.”

Knotts shared stories about young people becoming immersed in nature, playing in waterfalls and pushing through hard hikes on Trust-funded and coordinated trips. She described how the kids realized their own strength, gaining resiliency from the healing power of the Park.

Knotts told attendees about a specific trip Elk Hill took to Rose River Falls, describing a Ranger-led mindfulness activity and how the kids were experiencing the waterfall for the first time. Despite time constraints, Knotts decided to have the group hike the entire loop.

“So we’re heading out, and one of the girls is struggling with asthma but they’re all supporting her, we see snakes,” she remembered. “But the reason I wanted to keep going was to build resilience. The biggest thing our kids need to build in their life is resiliency because they’re overcoming really big challenges in their lives. At the end of that trip, the kids were exhausted, but so proud of themselves because they had defeated this huge hike.”

Foster talked about how the Shenandoah Youth Corps gives young adults the confidence, capability, and connections to begin careers in conservation. He discussed the innate human desire to be connected to the land and the significance of hands-on conservation work in creating space for youth to build meaningful connections with natural places and landscapes.

“I grew up in Bridgewater, and I was able to see the mountains – I could see Shenandoah,” he recalled, explaining his motivation to create ACC. “But I didn’t see a way for me to get there, to work there.” After working on and leading conservation crews in Vermont and Colorado, Zach returned to Virginia and founded what is now ACC. Today, he coordinates work crews and internships in Shenandoah National Park and across Appalachia, employing hundreds of young people and helping them start careers in conservation that weren’t available to him.

These three incredible speakers demonstrated just how important it is for the Trust to continue working with these partners and others like them to create even more opportunities for young people to experience and steward Shenandoah for years to come.

The Trust is incredibly thankful for the Banff Adventurers that attended the event, and the support of dedicated donors who make programs and partnerships like these possible – you are making an impact on the Park and in the lives of young people across Virginia.

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