As a child, Vera Reyes never had the opportunity to explore Yosemite National Park, even though it was located about three hours from her hometown of Dos Palos.
"Yosemite was a familiar word, but an unfamiliar place," she said.
Reyes finally visited the park -- famous for its waterfalls, granite rocks and giant sequoias -- as a Dos Palos High School student, when she joined Adventure Risk Challenge, a literacy and leadership program run through the University of California at Merced and Berkeley.
As part of the program, she spent 40 summer days in the park, participating in writing workshops and attempting ropes courses, rock climbing, kayaking, and white water rafting.
"I don't want my experience with Yosemite to end," said Reyes, now a UC Merced student. "In two years, I hope to be up there, with an internship in Yosemite."
Reyes found her passion through the wilderness program, but many youth in Merced County -- and throughout the San Joaquín Valley -- have not been so lucky, various experts said during a conference at UC Merced last Friday.
During the event, 'Building Healthy Youth in Merced County: Community Engagement and Scholarship,' UC professors joined community leaders to dissect the challenges facing young people in the area -- and to promote innovative programs that are engaging youth in positive activities.
The conference was organized by the Chancellor's Task Force on Community Engaged Scholarship, and funded through The California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities initiative.
The systemic challenges facing area youth run deep: In Merced County, more than 24 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. In the county -- where 65 percent of children under age 18 are Latino -- almost 65 percent of students are eligible for free meals, according to KidsData.org.
An estimated 20.8 percent of Latino students drop out of county high schools each year, according to KidsData.org, and the county has the 9th highest teen birth rate in the state, according to the Public Health Institute.
These factors have a major influence on young people's performance at school, and their plans for the future.
"The sense that young people have is hopelessness," said Christopher Jensen, regional liaison for the Friday Night Live program, which promotes healthy lifestyles free of alcohol, tobacco, and substance abuse among youth.
To prevent youth from feeling empty, lost or bored, they need to find their "human spark," Jensen said. Identifying that passion, he said, provides youth with a sense of joy, purpose, direction, and drive, and allows them to become assets to their community, rather than a problem.
Already, various programs throughout the Valley strive to help youth do that.
In Merced County, Adventure Risk Challenge -- which Reyes participated in -- targets English-language learners, and helps them succeed in high school and college, while exposing them to challenging outdoor activities.
"Our responsibility is to be their allies, and give them the skills, confidence, and resources, they need to graduate from high school and go to college," said Sarah Cupery Ottley, program director for the Merced County/Yosemite National Park site.
In the Sacramento area, Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, a hip-hop literacy program, pairs trained poet-mentor educators and classroom teachers to develop a culturally relevant writing curriculum for students.
Once they find their voice -- through this program and others -- young people have the potential to change the world, said Vajra Watson, program founder and director of research and policy for equity within the UC Davis School of Education.
"All great movements begin in the heart of a young person," she said.
Such programs are excellent examples of innovative programs that uplift area youth, and improve their chances for future success, said Jan Wallander, a UC Merced professor and chair of the taskforce that organized the event.
"Clearly there are some very effective ways of engaging youth and helping them invest in their future, and helping them raise their hope, and find their spark -- and many people in the community want to see that happen," Wallander said. "What comes across is (programs) are effective when they get to the youth on his or her own terms."
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