There's a wilderness summer camp for refugees that lets them just be kids.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, might seem like a random place for a refugee family to end up.

But things have gotten so bad in parts of the world — in war-torn Syria, in particular — that thousands of families are entering and spreading across hundreds of different cities in the U.S.

And while New Mexico might not be considered a premiere landing spot (most families end up in New York and California), it's definitely not a bad place to be. Just take a look:


Photo by Christiane Wilden/Good Free Photos.

One program in Albuquerque wants to use the area's stunning desert landscape to help refugee kids connect with their new home.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is teaming up with the Catholic Charities Refugee Mentoring Program to take these brand-new New Mexicans out into the wild.

It's a summer camp for kids who are here to find a better life, and it's called the Refugee Wilderness Explorers Program.

All photos by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, used with permission

"This was a way to connect them to experiences they had where they're from, and make them feel more at home," says Danielle Hernandez, the mentoring program coordinator.

She came up with the idea over a cup of coffee with Endion Schichtel, the Alliance's wilderness narrative coordinator, while the two were brainstorming ideas to keep the kids engaged during summer vacation — a time when they're the most disconnected from their peers and, often, feeling isolated in their new home.

Twice a week, Hernandez and Schichtel take groups of kids out into the wilderness to explore.

Many of them are completely new to America, fresh from places in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America.

They hike the mountains, explore trails, and stop to identify plants and bugs. The kids are also encouraged to draw or write about the nature they encounter — a good exercise to help them connect with the landscape and practice their English at the same time.

For many of them, this is their first good look at the strange new place they call home.

"One time we were on top of the mountain looking out over the city," Schichtle recalls. "And the kids were [joking], 'I can see the ocean over there! I can see Colorado!' They know they're in America, and they're in New Mexico, but they have no idea where that is. When they first got here, this is not at all what they pictured America looking like. Seeing them have that realization is really special."

But beyond just developing a physical connection to their new home, wilderness camp gives these refugee kids a chance to be just that: kids.

"These kids are often the interpreters for their household; they're often the head of their household," Hernandez says. "They're the only one who knows how to use the bus or make change at the grocery store. They have to interpret medical information for their parents who are often in poor health."

It's a lot for any young person, especially one who's been through what some of these kids have.

So whether you believe in a spiritual connection with nature or not, maybe a chance to play with bugs and goof around with new friends is exactly what these kids need.

"They're just kids," Hernandez says. "And every child needs a childhood."

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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

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Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

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Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

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Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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