Nature—we’ve all experienced it. We feel calmness and a sense of freedom from the cares of everyday life when we’re surrounded by it. Birds welcoming the morning; cicadas singing through the night. When immersed in it, something about it moves us to enjoy profound breaths which, unbeknownst to us, reconnect us to the surrounding beautiful world.
Just last week, Austin urban children had this experience at El Ranchito. In its fourth year of existence, El Ranchito, a nature-immersion summer program, is also considered a camp of serenity and a place full of environmentally-educational activities for fourth- through twelfth-graders.
“I love the sounds of nature as I lie down before I fall asleep,” said nine-year-old Erick Ivan Varela. “If you really listen, you’ll know it sounds like a music band. All the noises mixing up together make one big band.”
For a fairly small fee, El Ranchito campers spend a week living in tents on the historic Shield Ranch, southwest of Austin. Nestled amid oaks and cedars along a tributary to Barton Creek, El Ranchito offers a nature-immersion experience designed to nurture the minds, bodies, and spirits of campers in ways that are completely new for many of them.
“I learned some trees can grow in water and some creatures can live in water and on land.” Erick said. “I learned what is safe and what is not safe to eat in nature and, if I don’t know, I know now to just walk away.”
Fourth- through ninth-graders engage in the Nature Discovery Camp, which is full of activities such as hiking, horseback riding, swimming in natural swimming holes and creeks, games, and team-building challenges, as well as singing and storytelling around the campfire.
When Robert A. Ayres, president of El Ranchito, went to visit the camp one morning, he was thankful to begin his day by witnessing such a ‘sweet’ environment: “A capable staff having fun and working well together as a team, kids engaged with each other and with their work and their play, and an energy that is positive, without seeming hyped or frenetic. There is a spirit about El Ranchito that is. . . can I say, sweet,” Mr. Ayres said.
Tenth- through twelfth-graders participate in the camp’s Conservation Corps, for which they are paid a modest stipend. They work hands-on to maintain hiking trails, protect and restore wildlife habitat, and participate in age-appropriate environmental learning and outdoor adventure programs.
Building trenches out of tree trunks and a two-mile hiking trail, Conservation Corps members receive a sense of accomplishment and contribution while they bond with one another like a family, learn about problem-solving, creative-thinking, and project management.
“As a parent, I’m very happy to see my children say they can’t wait for next year,” said Rick de Leon. Sergio and Luis Amaya, Mr. de Leon’s two step-children, participated in El Ranchito this year for the first time. “The changes that El Ranchito has brought to our children are amazing. For them to say ‘I’m ready to go back’, that means the program is doing something good. And if the program is doing something good for our kids, it makes us parents very happy.”
“It’s wonderful—wonder-full—what happens at El Ranchito every day,” Mr. Ayres said. “It’s exactly what we hoped to create when we set out on this venture five years ago.”
For more information on El Ranchito, visit www.elranchito.org.By Ivan Dávila