Growing up, I had no concept of National Parks. I had seen pictures online of a night sky blanketed in stars, but I never saw that from my backyard in North Hollywood. I was terrified of the idea of camping and I had never heard of backpacking or rock climbing. Being outdoors was foreign and dangerous in my mind. It wasn’t until I met people who shared with me their passions for these places that I eventually stopped fearing them and found myself calling them home.
This introduction to parks happened when I joined the Yosemite Leadership Program as a freshman at UC Merced. I hiked through the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias for the first time with my program cohort and together we discovered that the “fire-proof” trees each told a 3-thousand-year-old story. I met Ranger Shelton Johnson who told me that I was an owner of not just one national park, but all of them! Since, I’ve rock climbed, I’ve backpacked and I’ve laid on granite domes and watched meteor showers sprinkle across the vast sky.
I thought these things only happened in the movies, I thought this happiness and feeling of completeness only happened once you had your life figured out. You know that feeling you get when you discover something so exciting and magical, that all you want to do is share it with anyone and everyone around? That’s how I feel about Yosemite and its stories. My favorite group to share this with are excitable fourth graders who have so much magic in their hearts and speak the language of discovery and curiosity. When I’m teaching these kids the stories that were taught to me, I forget that I’m just a 23-year-old girl from Los Angeles in a uniform. I feel like I become a part of their world and their experience. I become a part of this story. When I tell them that these places belong to them and watch them make that connection, I get to see them become part of the story and then the legacy lives on. It’s beyond just me. I’m a small part of a much bigger picture and I find solace and joy in that.
My discovery of Yosemite and exposure to some of its incredible opportunities was granted to me through the Yosemite Conservancy and its generous donors. I don’t think they realized it at the time but they expanded my world and helped me see the stars. I can’t thank these people individually for their gifts, or pay them back, but I try every day to extend the same generosity forward to people who visit, to people who may be afraid at first, to kids like the fourth graders. My hope is that everyone no matter their background or level of experience gets an opportunity to enjoy and protect their parks and maybe leave with a deeper connection to these places and each other.
Our friends at Parks Project, maker of quality National Park goods, and media production collective, Compass Coalition have teamed up to create a brand new series that honors everyday heroes who are working hard to keep our national parks, national treasures. The series is called “Park Champions” and Ranger Jessica Rivas is the Park Champion featured in the premiere episode based in Yosemite National Park.