Grant helps Future School of Fort Smith expand outdoor education programs

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 437 views 

Future School of Fort Smith students work on trail repair. (photo courtesy of Future School of Fort Smith)

Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Yamaha Outdoor Access Initiative, students from the Future School of Fort Smith will soon make things a little more pleasant for those hitting the trails in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest.

The Future School’s outdoor education program recently received the $5,000 grant for tools and equipment needed to clean up the Buckhorn OHV Trail System in Chester, Ark. The grant was awarded as part of Yamaha’s Outdoor Access Initiative, promoting hands-on outdoor education through public trail improvements.

The trail system took a hit when a tornado came through the area in May 2020, said Brett Roberts, the teacher for the program. The tornado did a lot of damage to the area and left many of the trails unusable.

“People out there with their four-wheelers and side-by-sides started making their own trails. I don’t blame them. They were out there to ride. But it’s become a muddy, rut-filled mess,” Roberts said.

Like most public land agencies, the Ozark-St. Francis is understaffed with only a few employees working to keep up with all that needs to be done, including campgrounds, signage, and trails. Roberts and students in her program hope they can help take some of the pressure off that staff and get things back in order for outdoor enthusiasts.

“It’s one of the things we do in the class, help with public lands. It’s part of our stewardship and ethics (studies). But we’ve been limited because we only had hand tools. The tools are great, but there is only so much you can do with a handsaw,” Roberts said.

The grant allows the program to add power equipment to its inventory, including chainsaws, backpack leaf blowers and the necessary safety equipment to use the tools. The Future School Outdoor Education Program is approaching its fifth year and has about 40 students enrolled with a waitlist. Through the program, Roberts focuses on teaching the students the importance of being good stewards of public lands.

“Funding from this grant from the Yamaha Outdoor Access Initiative is instrumental in furthering our outdoor stewardship initiative. We try to teach our students the importance of being good stewards and caring for the outdoors,” Roberts said. “Our students learn how to maintain and improve our local public lands. This grant is critical to create more outdoor opportunities for more students.”

Along with helping the public lands, the program is giving students, many who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance, the opportunity for other outdoor experiences. The program has two classes. The entry level class focuses on teaching students to be responsible for public lands, to leave no trace, and the need for stewardship. It also teaches students skills needed for backpacking, rock climbing, camping, kayaking and more. Students also learn wilderness first aid and have the opportunity to learn wilderness search and rescue. Students then experience all those things with all the necessary equipment at no cost.

In the second-year class, students take their newly acquired skills and learn how to teach others. The first-year class is open to all students in ninth through 12th grade. The second-year class is reserved for juniors and seniors. Each year, Roberts also selects two teaching assistants who not only help her with her class but also take part in presentations and public speaking events.

All the students leaving the program have a portfolio showing their skills and certifications. When students leave the class, they have base knowledge of wilderness first aid, climbing, belaying (the exerting tension on a climbing rope to counterbalance the climber when they fall) and more, Roberts said. She also said students also learn communication and leadership skills.

While a key purpose of the program is to allow students who might not otherwise have the chance to spend time in nature, it also allows them to either continue their education for a career in the field or even to start that career straight out of college. Students are prepared for a job as a trail guide or with AmeriCorps, a network of local, state, and national service programs that connects people in “service to meet community needs in education, the environment, public safety, health, and homeland security.” Students can also go to work for state or national parks, Roberts said.

“A lot of forest ranger positions are non-degree positions,” she said.

Students wanting to finish a bachelor’s degree before working in the parks system or other similar opportunity can get a degree in communications or various outdoor related programs. Students also leave the program with medical skills they can use anywhere, including CPR and first aid.

“The No. 1 thing students learn is leadership and communication. That is something they are going to use the rest of their lives in education, jobs, family,” Roberts said.

The No. 1 obstacle for people spending time in the outdoors and learning that love for the public lands, Roberts said, is money. Something often billed as cheap entertainment is not always accessible to those with lower incomes. Even hiking, which only requires sturdy shoes and clothes for the weather, can be inaccessible to someone with out reliable transportation or someone to take them where the trails are, Roberts said. Kayaking for a family of four can often require hundreds of dollars whether they rent or buy kayaks or canoes. The Future School’s outdoor program allows students the chance to learn and experience a number of activities free of charge.

“All they have to do is show up with their clothes. We provide everything else,” Roberts said.

That everything else includes kayaks, backpacks, rock-climbing gear, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, toiletry kits, food, drinks and more.

“It’s completely free to these kids. That way we can overcome that (financial) barrier,” she said.

The program is supported through grants and private donations. All support staff who accompany the students on outings, be it camping, hiking, kayaking or rock climbing, are properly trained and certified, and there are strict staff to student ratios in place to assure safety.

Future School of Fort Smith is a public charter school in Fort Smith established in 2016.