President Barack Obama spent time Saturday with about two dozen youngsters who are about the same age he was when he visited his first national park, Yellowstone. The experience, he would relate later in a speech at Cook’s Meadow, was life-changing.
The desire to help young Americans better appreciate the national parks that are in their backyards – but often go unvisited – helped drive last year’s creation of the Every Kid in a Park initiative. Through it, fourth-graders can go to its website and download a pass for free access for them and their families to visit all federally managed lands and waters – including national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and marine sanctuaries.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama gave the initiative a boost Saturday by handing out free passes to the fourth-graders, who hail from the Livingston Police Explorers Program and Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco, at the base of Yosemite Falls.
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“How many of you guys have been to a national park?” the president asked.
He said he wanted to make sure the kids – and youths across the nation – get the chance to visit national parks. And often.
Sometimes you can’t afford it, so it was nice he gave them a pass.
Getting a free parks pass is greatly appreciated, said Eleanor Rodriguez, 65, who volunteered with her husband to chaperone their grandson’s summer school class to the park. The class from Campus Park Elementary in Livingston got to meet Obama before listening to him speak at Cook’s Meadow.
“We like taking our kids fishing and hunting,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t afford it, so it was nice he gave them a pass.”
Fabian Conejo, 8, is going into fourth grade. He said the president shook his hand, then gave him a yearlong pass to Yosemite. The two didn’t exchange words, but Fabian said the experience was nonetheless exciting “because I’d never met him before – only on TV.”
Yosemite officials said they were impressed that the president and first lady took time to meet with the youngsters. “He surprised them and a couple of them were tearing up, that here’s the president and first lady coming over ... kids who are disadvantaged and a little bit at-risk,” Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher said.
“Both of them, the president and the first lady, are just so genuine about their love and admiration for programs developed by the Park Service and youth programs in general.”
4,000-5,000The number of free park passes Yosemite has distributed through the Every Kid in a Park initiative
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said the park has given out 4,000 to 5,000 free passes through the Every Kid in a Park initiative, more than any other national park, since the program started in September. He said about 1,100 of those went to fourth-graders in Merced County, and that almost all of them never had visited Yosemite before.
“He connected with the schoolchildren, he addressed the groups, it’s just huge,” Gediman said. “And also, with his conservation legacy, he’s been incredibly supportive of the national parks. ... I was there at the landing, and you could tell right away that the president, the first lady and his family, they love the parks, and it just is so genuine.”
Gediman, who has worked in Yosemite for more than 20 years, is also honored that the president chose to visit Yosemite during the National Park Service’s centennial year.
“You come here, and whether you’re here for an hour, a day, a week – just spending the time here in Yosemite, it stays with you.”
Still, Gediman said, “We can’t assume that the next generation is going to value national parks the way we do. ... So reaching out to the young people is a very deliberate effort to create a love and a connection with the parks. ... We can’t just be complacent, we have to be active in reaching out to the young people.”