Dreaming of a Thousand Forests

Updated: Apr 25

In the last six months, REACH’s model has been recognized more widely as an innovative tool for refugee integration. Our work and people have been featured in Outside Magazine, Free Forest School, and the Wednesday Journal, and will soon be covered in BBC Wildlife Magazine, Granite Gear's "Hot Minute," and CBS Mornings. I had the great pleasure of presenting together with a REACH graduate and a refugee board member at the Association for Experiential Education’s Annual International Conference, and I will soon be traveling with a REACH graduate to facilitate a workshop on engaging refugees in the outdoors at the Children and Nature Network’s Annual International Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.


We are moved that more groups across the country and globe are embracing this initiative to connect more newcomers to the outdoors. Many just want kids to get outside, unplugged from technology, while others may feel strongly about enhancing access and inclusion of diverse communities in the outdoors. Some are motivated by research that demonstrates the positive contributions of nature exposure on the physical, mental, and social well-being of individuals. Others are encouraged by studies that show that nature and outdoor education promote newcomers’ psychological and sociological adaptation. No matter the rationale, the fact that we are finally thinking about this as a society is important.


Together we can cultivate a rich landscape of unlimited potential.


American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on History wrote: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn . . . Each new fact or act is merely the application of man’s manifold spirit to the manifold world." In order to make sense of the world, we must acknowledge the truth within it. He explains:


“The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible. We as we read must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner, must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall learn nothing rightly . . . man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air.”


I think because we’ve each had our own powerful and sacred experiences in nature, we can easily relate to the significance of exposing others to its uncanny sanctity. At this juncture in time - in light of the crises like those in Afghanistan and Ukraine - we are simultaneously awakened within to some deep affinity to the human condition.

However, we need to reconceptualize the resettlement process in this country, and I believe that REACH has illuminated one effective integration approach, which leans on asset-based community development and multiculturalism. Cultural pluralism is a resource, and so we strive for an equal coexistence of different cultures at REACH without one culture having the right to dominate the others.


REACH Peer Mentor Payman Rajaie, a 14-year-old Afghan refugee youth leader, recently explained that “REACH helps newcomers – who are like blank sheets of paper – to write on them the true American experience. They can see America from their own eyes.”


Indeed, we want REACH participants to connect to their new homeland, and we all know camping and wilderness adventures are integral to the American Experience. But while I love this quote for the earnestness with which Payman articulated it, it’s not entirely accurate. When a refugee youth enters the REACH community, we inherently see them as a textured canvas.


We ardently forsake painting over anyone’s life portrait. Rather, we observe and learn from the beautiful artwork that has already dried. By inviting refugee newcomers to participate in transformative outdoor learning experiences, our goal is to inspire more layers to their colorful canvases.


Rollo May, a respected American existential psychotherapist, describes the magic that unfolds:


Beauty is the mystery that enchants us. Like all higher experiences of being human, beauty is dynamic; its sense of repose, paradoxically, is never dead and if it seems to be dead, it is no longer beauty …This is why, when we are before an image of beauty, we instinctively remain silent. We look and we listen. When we talk too much about beauty, we are objectifying it, putting it outside ourselves, destroying the inner visions and reducing it to objective chatter. We must preserve the capacity for wonder—which is the awareness that we can never fully explain the inner experience of beauty.


The divine nature within all of us is subtle and quiet. To truly connect and influence requires a dynamic, intentional two-way process. We must be open-minded, empathic, and active listeners. We must be willing to learn from each other and deeply appreciate the instinctive forms of splendor that manifest. This is acculturation or integration. This is multiculturalism.


Maisam, Payman’s older brother, frequently talks about his fondness for the campfire experiences during REACH camping trips. He likes them because they are all about collaboration, explaining further, “I think when we work together to make things, it is the most beautiful thing ever.” This quote is relevant on so many levels.


True acculturation, the multidimensional exchange of behaviors, languages, identities, and knowledge, is transformative in nature. It’s a process that generates innovation, exploration, new possibilities.



New possibilities abound at REACH in the coming months. REACH youth, staff, and volunteers will embark on a delightful array of intercultural outdoor learning adventures. As an organization that values and fosters youth initiative, much of what’s planned stemmed from the vision of our Peer Mentors.


This spring, our refugee youth leaders will be designing and implementing several service-learning projects including refugee advocacy campaigns, stewardship initiatives, and an interactive public simulation exercise about the humanitarian rules of war. All REACH youth and families will also be invited to participate in these youth-led events. In April and May, many of our young people will have the chance to tour an assortment of local college campuses and explore the different career trajectories available to them.


The Peer Mentors will also continue to plan and train for three unique wilderness learning excursions, which they selected as a group. These include a 3-day paddling trip on the Wisconsin River, a 3-day biking trip on the Elroy-Sparta Trail, and a 10-day camping trip within three National Parks out west.


REACH is expanding its summer programming as well. This year, our Summer Adventure Camp will consist of four separate weeks of day camp sessions where refugee youth may register for one or multiple weeks of camp. Each week will include daily learning experiences focused on nature education, stewardship, water-based adventure sports, land-based adventure sports, and teambuilding. Registered youth may also opt to attend two of three overnight camping trips this summer.


Our Summer Adventure Camps introduce new refugee youth to the REACH experience – the connections, the dynamic learning, and the healing and growth.


Payman’s favorite things about REACH are the community and the relationships he’s formed with others, the adventures outdoors where he learns new things, and the opportunities to find himself. “By understanding my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, I can work on my weaknesses and turn them into strengths,” he proclaims.


Payman’s other brother Nur Aga likes the opportunities he gets through REACH to explore new activities and adventures that he’s always dreamed about, like kayaking and climbing. “When I learned that REACH would give us the opportunity to go camping, I thought that’s great. I will be able to see and experience nature in person instead of watching nature documentaries! I have the opportunities to see many animals in real life . . . fish, turtles, snakes.”


REACH is a flourishing Oak tree, laden with acorns ready to drop and grow, creating multicultural forests of engaged learners like Payman and his remarkable brothers.

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