At the top of a trail just up the hill from our house in Yosemite National Park stands the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. With over 500 of the world's largest sequoia trees, it is a must-see for most visitors to the park. But while standing next to a mature sequoia can leave one slack-jawed with wonder, it's their cones that fascinate me. Because the largest living thing on Earth starts its life in the tiniest, simplest way. Its seed is just the size of an oat. Its cone is less than three inches long. Its needs are profound — only the right mixture of sun, soil, and water as well as help from hungry chickarees, boring beetles or fire will allow these massive trees to get a start in life.
This week the teenagers participating in the Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC) program at Yosemite will move into their home base at my daughter's school. Many of them are only fourteen-years-old. Over the next forty days they will hike, backpack, river raft, rock climb, and more importantly, learn to rely on themselves and each other. Most of them are from families where English is the second language. Many of them attend knowing they are their family's hope for a different kind of life. It is up to these kids to learn the skills that will take them to college and their families from agricultural work in the Central Valley into the mainstream of American life. Their journey reminds me of the sequoias.
Like the sequoia's cones, they are chockfull of the gifts of life — in their case, talent, smarts, kindness, hope and a willingness to work hard. But like the giant trees, they will need just the right mixture of conditions to flourish. By teaching wilderness skills, leadership training and putting the students through a rigorous writing curriculum, ARC, a program sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley and Merced (but funded by private donations), hopes to provide just that. I know it can happen because I've watched many ARC participants grow and mature in this program, going from high school kids showing promise to successful students at top universities.
The last time I did a writing workshop with the ARC students, the topic was service. All through the class I wanted to share my friend Nancy Casolaro’s story. For whatever reason, I refrained. Then last Sunday I spent the day at Nancy's helping to put books into book bags for kids at an inner city school. Three years ago, Nancy and another friend, Sarina Simon, took it upon themselves to adopt an inner-city KIP school (of Waiting for Superman fame). The principal's main request? Help get books to the students, many of whom had never owned even one. Using their own money and Nancy's considerable bargain-hunting skills, Project Bookbag was born. Each year they have given every student in the school a bag containing seven too-good-to-put-down books.
For Nancy this is personal. The child of first-generation Italian immigrants, her father never finished grammar school; her mother had to drop out of high school (and later earned her GED). There were no books in their home. But they had a neighbor, Doug McGall, who worked in a bookstore. He made it his business to read to Nancy, her brother and her cousins and to give them books.
Doug McGall died when Nancy was in the second grade, but he left money for Nancy, her brother and her cousins to go to college. Nancy's brother grew up to be one of the country’s most famous prosecutors. Nancy has devoted her life to education. They still credit Doug McGall with instilling in them a love of learning. Now Nancy is passing on the gift. (Picture: Doug McGall and Nancy.)
Later this week, I’ll meet the students who will spend their forty days in the wilderness learning to be more than they ever hoped they could be. I hope to share with them the story of Doug McGall. Actions don’t have to be huge to make a difference. Service can pay off decades after the original deed. Like the towering sequoia, great things can happen from even the tiniest seed.
-- Jamie Simons
In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city. (Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)