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."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less