A young girl holding a ladybug on her finger while another young girl curiously looks at the bug.

The seeds for LandPaths were first planted in 1996, and the organization’s mission was simple: foster a love of the land in Sonoma County. Since those early days some twenty-five years ago, LandPaths has acquired and preserved roughly 2,000 acres of parks and open space for generations of locals to enjoy. In addition to stewarding our local oak woodland and coastal redwood ecosystems, they engage visitors of all ages through education and hands-on participation in outdoor exploration.

“I think of LandPaths as being a community institution or a movement of people and land, a confluence of people and land,” says LandPaths executive director Craig Anderson, who has been with the organization since 1997. “It’s really just a very focused means of having a healthy community through a relationship with place.”

Among the numerous visitors developing a love for the land are local youth. First launched in 1999, the organization’s youth programs have grown into multiple well-attended and successful camps.

One of the longest-running and most popular camps at LandPaths is Owl Camp, a nature immersion summer camp hosted at their open space properties and other partner locations.

After a modest start, Owl Camp now hosts hundreds of kids between the ages of 6-13 each summer. One camp is hosted at their Rancho Mark West Property, which the 2020 Glass Fire impacted, and another is hosted at the privately-owned Preston Farm in Healdsburg.

In addition to Owl Camp, LandPaths also operates Camp Bohemia, which focuses on nature survival skills, herbal medicine making, and more. A mid-winter weekend camp, Nourished by Nature, is geared for kids in first through sixth grades, and a spring break camp is also included in their offerings for younger kids. LandPaths also host treks for teens, including a river kayaking trek and a backpacking trip. And earlier in 2021, they launched their first Queer Youth and Allies program, which ran Saturdays from late March to May, and will be launching again in August 2021.

Anderson says that the teen stewards not only visit the preserves but put work into the land. He says you can find teens removing invasive plants, repairing trails, helping to reduce fire risks, planting oaks, and cleaning up creeks. During COVID, the program has been even more popular, with some teen steward programs accommodating nearly double the participants than in pre-COVID times.

One of the things that ensures the success of the LandPaths camps is the organization’s commitment to ensuring that at least 50% of attendees are provided scholarships. In 2021 alone, Anderson says that they’ve made at least 500 scholarships available.

“When you have [only a few] kids that are on scholarship or coming on the bus from somewhere else, and they arrive, and they’re only a small part of the population, where do they stay?” says Anderson. “They stay with the person that looks like them, who speaks their language.”

Anderson says that to create truly diverse and inclusive environments at their camps,  LandPaths increased their scholarships to 50% of the campers. With kids in socio-demographically and culturally diverse groups, the campers better represent the population of Sonoma County, adds Anderson.

Having so many attendees come in through scholarships helps every child feel welcome, Anderson explains. “When you have a diverse enough group of kids, they can’t stick in their own little clusters. They integrate with everybody. I could get pretty teary-eyed at this moment right now, talking to you, thinking about what that does for kids to have those experiences with kids their own age, kids just like them of a different color or a different language of origin. It’s profound,” says Anderson. “So the point being is if we just charged people that wanted to come, we could pay for camps. We might even make money on camps, but that’s not our purpose.”

Grant funding has been key to sustaining the LandPaths camp programs. One source of scholarship funds comes from a Community Foundation donor, who set up a fund to help support the LandPaths camps in memory of her daughter, who loved being out in nature.

The pandemic has not hindered enrollment, and Anderson says they’ve had strict protocols for kids to stay healthy and safe while enjoying camp activities. So far, there have been no cases of COVID at their camps. The camps have provided much-needed respite during a nationally and globally tumultuous time while ensuring deep connections to Sonoma County’s ecosystems and community for generations to come.

“I keep realizing and experiencing that one of the most important things we can do is simply provide opportunities for young people to see how they can belong to a community, how the land is there for them, and it’s part, frankly, of their cultural background and their birthright. It can challenge them. [Learning to love the land] requires some love right back because it needs to be restored,” says Anderson.

For many youths, the camp experience is one of their first in nature. Youth were busy feeding the chickens at Preston Farm when foundation staff stopped by the spring break camp earlier in the year. For most of the attendees, it was their first time meeting a chicken, and they loved the novelty of seeing where eggs come from.

“In so many ways, the testimonials we hear from parents like: ‘This made my child’s summer,’ It keeps us going and keeps us fixated on simply trying to do the just thing, which provides opportunities for all kids to know the outdoors and get to know themselves all the more.”

Story by Dani Burlison, photos by Caitlin Childs

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