|Wednesday, Jan 19, 2011|
In October, Wilderness Fellows Monica Patel and Lisanne Petracca welcomed local Marshallese students – former residents of the Marshall Islands now residing in Arkansas – to Buffalo National River to enjoy the spectacular natural beauty and recreational activities of the park.
The program, "Marshalls to Mountains Day 2010," brought Marshallese students from Springdale to the Buffalo on October 23rd and 30th for a day of canoeing and hiking.
The event began with the bus trip from the Jones Center to Tyler Bend on the Buffalo River in Searcy County. After a quick snack, the kids went to the visitor center for a quick history of the park, and from there a hike along the river bluffs to the historic Sod Collier Homestead. Lunch was prepared by NPS staff and volunteers, after which the event moved to the gravel bar for a lesson in water safety and canoeing techniques. Heading downstream there was swimming in 54-degree water and lots of fun, followed by a return to Tyler Bend and another hot meal before departure back to Springdale.
Petracca felt that it was important to reach out to the Marshallese community living less than two hours away from the park. Few people know that northwest Arkansas has the greatest population of Marshallese Islanders living outside of the Islands themselves, which are located 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It is estimated that 10% of the total Marshallese population resides within Arkansas.
Petracca’s connection with Marshallese students began four years ago when she went to the Republic of the Marshall Islands as a volunteer teacher for the WorldTeach program. She lived on the outer island of Namdrik for and served as a contract teacher at the republic's National Vocational Training Institute on Majuro.
Most of the islanders live well below the poverty line and have had great difficulty adjusting to life in the United States. Marshallese youth have been plagued with issues ranging from low academic performance to gang involvement to a high prevalence of teen pregnancy.
There was a great response from the Marshallese community in Springdale. Albious Latior, event co-coordinator and the community outreach coordinator at the Jones Center for Families in Springdale, noted that over 400 permission slips were received for only 90 total spots on the trips.
“When I got this position at Buffalo National River,” Petracca recalls, “it was an obvious project for me to organize right away. Canoeing plays such an important role in traditional Marshallese culture, and I felt it was important to give these kids the opportunity to reconnect with their heritage.”
“This trip made us feel like we are back home,” added Latior. “It brought us lots of memories of our home islands. All the students who went last Saturday want to come back again if possible. The kids were very excited, along with their parents.”
Petracca raised nearly $2,500 for t-shirts, food, canoes, and transportation to and from Springdale for all the participants. This event was made possible by lead sponsors The Ozark Society, The Ozark Society Foundation, Buffalo National River Partners, Silver Hill Canoe and Springdale Public Schools. Additional donations were supplied by local businesses Hudson’s Supermarket, Dairy Farmers of America, McDonalds, PepsiCo, and Walmart. A fundraising website set up for Marshalls to Mountains Day raised $1,300 thanks to contributions from 45 individual donors.
Superintendent Kevin Cheri said that he hopes this will become an annual event and that it and others like it will afford an opportunity for disadvantaged communities to experience the national park system.