CENTRAL FALLS — Growing up in an urban area like Central Falls demands that kids develop a certain amount of “street smarts,” but the experience of hiking out west, cooking meals on a campfire and sleeping under the stars offers a whole different set of survival skills.
This April vacation, 15 students from Central Falls High School will be taking part in a 50-mile hike and camping experience in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. This is the fifth year for the “Kids in the Canyon” trip, founded by Central Falls High School teacher Don Blais.
Blais, originally from Central Falls, is a special education teacher for the Feinstein Guide to Success (G2S) Academy. The academy program is designed to keep students in school who are at risk of dropping out or not graduating, or who need mentoring in some way. Blais is also a hiking and camping enthusiast, and knows firsthand the valuable lessons that can be learned from being one with nature and experiencing life in the great outdoors.
“I lived in California for 10 years and I got into hiking and camping. When I came back to Central Falls, I got the idea to try this,” said Blais. “In talking to the kids, many didn't know about the Grand Canyon. Some didn't even really know where Arizona was,” he said. He added that the group sleeps in tents, cooks all meals on small camp stoves, and is otherwise “completely self-reliant.”
Blais said that in the five years he has been running “Kids in the Canyon,” the experience has always been extremely positive for everyone involved. Some of the students have come back for a second trip and several of the high school's recent graduates have volunteered to come back as chaperones. “The Park Service knows we're there. And we've always passed with flying colors,” he noted, of the Central Falls contingent.
Blais said the week-long trip follows a planned educational curriculum as well. “We demonstrate overall wellness, the importance of taking care of ourselves, staying away from drugs. The kids learn basic first aid training and obtain CPR certification. But most importantly, it's all about making connections and keeping in touch.”
The “Kids in the Canyon” trip is open to all students at the high school who are willing to demonstrate a year-long commitment and dedication to the overall program. This involves meeting every Saturday morning with Blais from September through April to go on local hiking excursions. “We go hiking in Lincoln Woods, the Monastery and we've been down to Arcadia,” said Blais.
The trip isn't cheap. Blais estimates that it costs a total of around $20,000 for all of the air fares and related expenses. However, so far he has been able to make the program possible through several donations from local businesses and other organizations, as well as fundraising done throughout the year. The students and chaperones also pay a portion of the expenses themselves.
Among the largest contributors is Navigant Credit Union. On Friday morning, Navigant President Gary Furtado presented the group with check for $2,500, something that the bank has done for the past three years.
“We're happy to support Central Falls and the programs that go on in the city,” Furtado said. “Central Falls is still our home. It's where we were born.” He added, “This program is great. By taking kids out and giving them an adventure, it teaches them responsibility.”
Other key contributions come from the Grizzard Foundation, which gives $3,000 to the cause, the Central Falls Teachers Union, which annually provides $1,000, and Eastern Mountain Sports, Blais said.
For the participants themselves, the excitement was high about the upcoming trip. At an assembly at the high school on Friday morning, they took turns trying on the khaki-colored, safarai-style shirts that each received to wear on the flight.
Tyler Delacruz, 15, who went to the Grand Canyon last year, said he had never really left Rhode Island before “Kids in the Canyon,” except for one brief visit to Maine. “I think it's going to help me out,” he said, of the hiking trek. “It lets me see things other than urban living.”
Dyllon Sousa, 15, who also was part of the group last year, said that he found Arizona to be “way different” from what he is used to in Rhode Island, and said the trip itself was “amazing.”
Manuel Lopez, 17, who has taken part in “Kids in the Canyon” on two previous occasions, said what he likes best about the experience is the location. “The scenery is so beautiful...so gorgeous,” he stated. He said that the trip also provided him with his first camping experience. “It was kind of weird, sleeping outside the first time,” he admitted, but added that this is something he was now looking forward to.
Joe Gomes, 17, another returning camper, said he appreciates “the hiking and the scenery.” He added that the nature trip “changes you personally. After the first time, I became more of a risk-taker. More confident,” he stated.
The 15 “Kids in the Canyon” students and their chaperones, Blais, Glen Laramee, Deborah Reddy, John Lorea, Brian Wilson, Jose Teixeira, and Anthony Rodrigues, will be leaving for their western adventure on April 16. As he has in the past, Blais is planning to take plenty of photographs, and has documented past “Kids in the Canyons” trip with a book that he has authored and produced.