For the past three years the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have had a cooperative arrangement with the students and staff of Central High School, West Campus, Fresno California. Volunteer groups from the school have done restoration work in Sequoia National Park, in one of the world’s premier sequoia groves. Their efforts contribute to a project, which has been one of the highest priorities in the National Park service – restoring portions of a grove formerly occupied by visitor accommodations that stood for decades.
Yet, planting sequoias is only half the story. The student volunteers brought by Steve Starcher and his staff are a combination of students of forestry and agriculture, gaining in the field the practical experience of what they learned in the classroom; and Pathways, a special education program led by Starcher, which aims to socialize emotionally disturbed kids, some of whom have been abused, were born as drug babies, or have come from broken homes. This program could very well be considered the last stand for these kids before they enter society and an uncertain future.
These groups of 15-20 students, alongside adult staff, have contributed to the restoration of 2.3 acres of the Giant Forest grove, planting 1000 plantings, including sequoias, potting more than 7,500 tree seedlings for future restoration planting, and propagating 2,100 shrub cuttings (including experimenting with hard to propagate species) for both Giant Forest restoration and re-vegetation along Park highway reconstruction.
The Pathways kids interact with mainstream kids in the wholly different environment of field and camping trips, and on-campus projects. This volunteer experience provides the vehicle for what Starcher excitedly calls “breakthroughs” – whether it is speaking comfortably in a small group for the first time or integrating the trust that allows them to stop aberrant behaviors, for example.
After planting, the sequoia trees must be tended to with care that nurtures them through the harsh experiences of planting and the first few years. Gradually, they are weaned off the water and other care until they can stand on their own and grow. Similarly, Starcher and his coworkers put Pathway kids in continually more challenging social situations, tending to them with guidance and support that nurtures them through the sometimes harsh experiences and difficulty of high school life. Gradually, the students are weaned off the Pathways program until they can stand on their own and face life with skills necessary for both socialization and occupation.
The traits that stand out about Steve Starcher are his almost inexhaustible energy, an indomitable spirit, and his own level of preparedness in helping these Pathways students under extremely emotional and even aggressive circumstances. These students trust him. He provides nurturing that many have previously not experienced. It is because of Steve Starcher that these students grow to become capable to integrate back into the mainstream of high school. Most importantly, these students are provided a chance at success.