Learn about the forest by looking at the trees

There's something about showering once a week that teaches you a thing or two about the real necessities in life.

The opportunity to learn about those basics is why some students volunteer precious summer weeks to join the Student Conservation Association, an organization that sends students to work, live, and learn in the rustic environment of national parks around the United States.

"Showering once a week is a far cry from what I'm used to," says Marie Ditolla, a high school SCA volunteer in New Hampshire's Franconia Notch State Park. "But it's not as bad now. It's not as much of a necessity as I thought before."

Most important, she adds at the conclusion of her volunteer experience, "I have a whole new perspective."

Students who serve up foamy drinks and yogurt specialties all summer may well lose their memories with that first assignment of the school year. But for the 2,500 college-age interns and high school volunteers like Marie, who travel to hundreds of sites around the country with SCA, their time in the woods leaves a lasting imprint. Whether they're in national and state parks as remote as Alaska's Denali and Hawaii's Haleakala, or as popular as Arizona's Grand Canyon and Wyoming's Yellowstone, they learn far more than how to punch a clock or negotiate benefits like free frozen yogurt.

"I've learned a lot about myself, my limitations, who I am emotionally," says Sarah Viorritto, another New Hampshire volunteer. "We've learned from each other. We've been together for 840 hours straight. I've learned tolerance for people."

The seven students, who lived for five weeks in this camp nestled between the lush peaks and plateaus of the New Hampshire mountains, traded the comforts of air conditioners and dishwashers for two canvas tents, a fire pit, and the experience of outdoor learning.

"Before I came here, anything I might have planted would have died," says Sarah, perched on the top of a picnic table. "Now, I'm planting huge lilac trees."

Help for Uncle Sam

State and federal agencies, like the National Parks Service and the Forestry Service, contract with SCA. They then supply selected high school applicants tents and food in exchange for daily physical labor, such as building and maintaining trails, restoring habitat, and fixing up rest areas.

Each group is guided by paid, college-age leaders. SCA also offers internships for college-age students who want to spend a few months working for an agency in exchange for room, board, and a stipend.

"The biggest impact [on the high schoolers] is team work skills and learning how to get along," says Scott Weaver, SCA's senior vice president. "They have to be very independent as a group. For college interns, what they learn is much more pertinent to their career path."

College interns work more directly with government resource agencies in taking animal and plant inventories, performing back-country emergency response, and doing environmental interpretation for park tourists.

But all students at least become familiar with some of the basics about subjects that often sound intimidating in the classroom - botany, geology, ecology -but make more sense when working in the natural laboratories under a blue, cloud-brushed ceiling.

College thesis started it all

The idea of building relationships with these agencies and students began as a college thesis in 1955.

The first work crew sprouted two years later at Olympia Park in Washington. The agencies have since welcomed the trade-off with the students, and the students continue to learn the hands-on way.

"Normally, I would have just stepped on a tree to make a path, but now I try to leave everything where it is," says Marie. "Now that I've lived in the forest, I'd consider myself an environmentalist. I'm more aware of the little things."

SCA says that 60 percent of its interns decide to go into conservation or education fields, but students also join to try something new or just have fun.

"It was always just something I wanted to do for the summer." says Sarah. "This hasn't really affected what I want to do with my life."

Whether they march into the parks with a mission to learn more about nature or just to temporarily escape their parents' watchful eyes, all the participants leave with an understanding of and comfort in nature that they may not have had before they left home.

At the end of one workday in New Hampshire's Franconia Notch State Park, the students swim in the Basin, an icy-cold granite pool. Looking like the handle on a giant ladle, the mountain-stream rushes down into the swirling waters below. Tourists gape at the SCA volunteers preparing to jump 15 feet from the rocks above.

Participants admit that much of what they learn is in these hours after they put down their shovels and branch-cutters. "Sometimes I get sick and tired [of the work] and need to go take a walk by myself," says Sarah. "But we get along really well."

They take turns cooking dinner, cleaning, filling the water jugs, and putting away the food. Then the "family" sits by a fire and plays games.

"My parents were putting down bets that I'd be home in the first two weeks," says Marie. "Now, when I think about being a park ranger, I think it's not so bad."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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