Contact: Susan Sherman
Shenandoah National Park Trust
[email protected]

City Kids Head to the Hills: A Pilot Program of The Shenandoah National Park Trust, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Walmart

On Saturday, June 13, six anxious “Littles” and their six “Bigs” gathered in the parking lot of Walker Upper Elementary School in anticipation of their first overnight camping trip in Shenandoah National Park. For all of the “Littles” (participating children in Big Brothers Big Sisters are referred to as Littles; their adult matches are Bigs) in fact, this was their first overnight camping trip—ever. They were nervous about all sorts of things: bugs, bears, and being away from home.

After group introductions and talks about what they could expect to see and hear in Shenandoah, each Little received his or her own sleeping bag to keep, courtesy of Walmart. Walmart representatives were on hand to distribute the bags, as well as tents and camp stoves, which the company also donated.

The “Big Camp Out” marked step #3 in a three-part pilot program funded by the Shenandoah National Park Trust. Step Up to the Great Outdoors: From Neighborhood to National Park introduces underserved children to Shenandoah National Park—their national park.

Step #1 brought Shenandoah National Park Rangers to Charlottesville earlier this spring for a fun day of games and artifacts from the national park—like deer antlers, bear fur, and bird nests. The goal was to excite them with what they might find in Shenandoah National Park, and get them accustomed to uniformed Park Rangers.

Step #2 brought the children to Shenandoah National Park for a day trip, during which they hiked and played with Park Rangers and took in the magnificent views from up high.

For Step #3, the weekend overnight, five of the six Littles completed the Junior Ranger Program. They learned how to pitch a tent and how to cook on a camp stove. And they hiked. At the summit of Blackrock, Park Rangers asked the Bigs and Littles to write postcards to their future selves. Their notes included, “This place rocks! You have to come back!” and “I loved hiking, camping and roasting marshmallows and having fun with Joan (my Big).” All this from children who, 24 hours before, were nervous to board the van to Shenandoah National Park.

“This program was borne following a conversation I had with Jackie Bright, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge here in Charlottesville,” says Susan Sherman, President of the Shenandoah National Park Trust, headquartered in Charlottesville. “I told Jackie that the Trust funds week-long summer camps in Shenandoah National Park with a service project focus. I asked her whether the children she serves might be interested. Jackie told me that a week-long camp in a national park would probably be too overwhelming for most of her kids—many of whom are fearful to simply play outside. That’s how we conceived of this stepped-up approach to introduce children to the outdoors and ultimately to their national park,” says Sherman.

The Trust is also funding the Step Up Program for children from the Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia, who have completed Steps #1 and #2 already and whose overnight happens in August.

A grant from The Charles Fund provided the seed money to launch the program this year in Charlottesville. Sherman says that with adequate funding, the Trust hopes to expand the program to additional communities in the coming years.