GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - When it comes to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, seven Grand Canyon Middle School (GCS) students will no longer be on the outside looking in.
From April 28 to May 1, students will have the opportunity to experience life on the Colorado River, through a program run by Grand Canyon Youth (GCY). Based in Flagstaff, GCY offers opportunities to experience the unique river environment while working and interacting with students from other schools. GCY's mission statement, according to their website, is to "provide youth, ages 11 to 19, an experiential education along the rivers and canyons of the Southwest in an effort to promote personal growth, environmental awareness, community involvement, and teamwork among people with diverse backgrounds."
GCY's executive director Emma Wharton said she is excited about the prospect of three small area schools experiencing the river together. There will be 22 students attending the river trip altogether.
"From the beginning GCY wanted to make sure we were serving students who had the Grand Canyon right in their backyard, so I thought it would be great to work with Williams and the Grand Canyon School and Northland Prep in Flagstaff," Wharton said. The idea sounded so cool. The little trifecta with each of the gateways to the Grand Canyon."
Wharton explained that part of the reason these three groups will be working together is because they are fairly small schools, and the GCY program requires a certain number. The fee, which the students partially cover, includes pre-trip support, food, equipment, sleeping supplies, waterproof bags, professional guides, and transportation to and from the river from Flagstaff.
"We are charging the minimum amount that we possibly can, so it ended up working out great. Students also earn a portion of the cost of the trip. And then they prepare an educational project that they will share while they are on the trip," she said.
Along with educational projects and fundraisers, the students are also required to participate in eight hours of community service before they can climb on the boat.
"It's been interesting, we have just started to get in the community service forms for this trip and depending on whether the students were from Williams, Grand Canyon or Flagstaff they have very different forms of service type activities," Wharton said.
During the trip, Wharton said that GCY tries to make the river as interactive an experience as possible for the students. They will participate on cook crews; help with loading and unloading of the boats, as well as going on hikes.
"It's a river trip where they have fun, they do educational stuff, they go downstream," she said, adding how seeing the Grand Canyon from the river is something students should experience, especially if they live there.
"I think seeing the Grand Canyon from the Colorado River is a really different perspective and oftentimes a really fun perspective. And I think that it is important for these kids to have that opportunity," she said.
One of the rewarding aspects of the trip Wharton said she hears from past participants is the breaking down of assumptions and preconceptions students may have about others.
"Last year we did the same sort of trip, and what I heard was, 'oh, usually we don't like kids from Flagstaff, or 'ew, kids at Grand Canyon...'" she said. "It was neat for them to get to interact with kids from different schools. I think it is really nice in that respect. I think that is one of the things that is special about this trip is that there are these three different schools and three different educators that are working together and figuring out how to do different things."
As well as breaking down assumptions about their peers, GCY also builds up future careers and leaders, evidence that river trips such as these can be life-changers.
"From GCS we have had participants in the past that come off the trip and said, 'I have found what I want to do,' and it is of great importance to the people who do haven't seen it from the river perspective."
GCS math and science teacher Mark Jordan, who will be traveling down the river with his students, echoed the sentiment."For some it's been almost a life-altering experience," he said. "Some have turned out to be river guides and a lot of them have returned to the canyon over the years. It's been a tremendous experience for them."
Starting work last November, students have already completed the bulk of the work necessary to participate in the trip. From shoveling sidewalks to running booths at their winter fair, they have shown how much the upcoming trip means to them. With plenty of local support in the mix, the students have met their fundraising goal as well.
The students are currently making a banner/flag to display on the trip, as well as one that will be hung at the school that will list the organizations that contributed to the success of the trip.
Presently, they are giving their educational projects the final tweaks, which they will share during the trip. Jordan said the projects include information in the river itself, reading the river, species of mammals along the corridor, among others.
"Even though they live here in the Grand Canyon, some of the students never take the opportunity to go down past the rim and go along the river. I hope they come away with an appreciation of the place," he said.
GCY offer programs open to high school and middle school students during the summer as well, which are open to anybody. Scholarships are available for those programs. For more information, visit www.grandcanyonyouth.org.