On May 22, two big buses pulled into the parking lot of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and 90 fifth graders from Lincoln Elementary School in Stockton piled out. They looked up and stared. For a few, it was their first time outside of the city. For some, it was their very first trip to the forest. For all, it was an amazing day of hands-on learning at the park.

The story behind these buses began in the fall of 2017 and the converging goals of three organizations: Save the Redwoods League, California State Parks, and Calaveras Big Trees Association. Each organization is striving to protect our forests by connecting people with our public lands, and each has made it a priority to reach out to underserved communities. These organizations understand that one day, the fate of our beloved parks will lie in the hands of today’s schoolchildren.

       In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught. (Baba Dioum, 1968)

Teddie Jackson, retired teacher and park aide at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, knows exactly why more Central Valley schoolchildren don’t come to the park. “Low-income schools just don’t have money for buses,” says Jackson. “We need transportation scholarships to bring more kids up to experience the park. And to make the deepest impact, our program has to be aligned with Next Generation Science Standards.”

Jackson was passionate about creating a transportation scholarship program, and Calaveras Big Trees Association jumped in with a $6,000 grant to support the first year of “Buses to Big Trees.” More good news came six months later, when Save the Redwoods League awarded the project a grant of $15,000 over three years.

Almost immediately, Jackson started contacting Title One schools within driving distance of the park, and teachers were ecstatic to hear about the transportation scholarships. Teacher applications for the program tell a poignant story.

      Very few of our students have ever left Stockton. They have never experienced nature.

      Our students lack authentic experiences with nature. They have difficulty making real world connections which interferes with their ability to think like scientists.

      Most of our students have not even been out to a forest of any kind… This trip would be a starting point for all kinds of lesson, from math, to science and writing, to art and poetry. It will be experience we’d share, a connection that they would make with nature and hopefully encourage visits to more of our beautiful state parks.

      Our school has the highest poverty rate of all schools in the district… Our 5th graders come from diverse cultures, but one thing they all share is a lack of life experiences. Hands-on activities such as this would show that real science needs to be seen and touched to create value. Supporting our science curriculum is a challenge. We are at a time of no textbooks and limited budgets to promote the importance of learning science.

Organized by Jackson, the staff and volunteers of Calaveras Big Trees have developed a program that “plants seeds” for these schoolchildren, giving them new life experiences on which to build. The students of Lincoln Elementary were the pilot group, with most school groups coming in the fall when the cost of buses is lower.

While hiking through the North Grove, and learning some of the park’s history, the students saw evidence of past exploitation and were inspired by past activists who campaigned to create our park and stop the destruction. This emotional connection showed up on many of the student’s essays.

      I felt sorry for those trees that got killed, skinned/peeled, and that they had to die. The great news was that some trees got protected later.

     My favorite part of the hike was to see the Mother of the Forest [tree]. That is sad that men skinned the tree for the bark to sell it. I happened to notice there was heart in the tree.

During the journaling session, students were encouraged to “connect with their inner John Muir.” Students were asked to move off by themselves for a few minutes, being quiet and attentive and observing nature closely. In a journal, they wrote or sketched what they saw.

      My absolute favorite part of the trip was journaling. Something I remember was “I thought journaling was boring, but when I did it, it was really fun.” I like seeing different things in the environment. This opportunity of going to Big Trees State Park was unforgettable.

In the third segment of the day, students acted out the food web and discovered for themselves the impact of losing any member of the web.

      We learned about how all the animals need each other. This activity was super educational. How we did it was we each became either Producer which are plants or Consumer that eats plants or animals. Primary Consumers who are herbivores that only eat Producers. Secondary Consumers eat Primary Consumers. Scavengers eat dead and rotten things. A Decomposer breaks down dead animals and plants and turns them back to soil. And finally there is the apex Predator that eats a variety of organisms.

Concepts behind the food web came to life because the hands-on exercise was paired with their own observations of animals.

      This is my first time ever visiting Big Trees and also my first time hearing a woodpecker. I enjoyed pretending to be the animals in a food web and better understanding the process of it… My favorite part of the field trip was the animals. I liked the chickaree because it made cute chipping noises and had a very fluffy tail. Another animal that I like that most people are afraid of was a gopher snake that I saw in a decaying Sequoia Tree.

Because of these transportation scholarships, Calaveras Big Trees State Park has opened new life experiences for a great group of young people. We’re looking forward to more school groups on the fall.

If you don’t have a favorite charity, consider Save the Redwoods League and Calaveras Big Trees Association!