By Howard Meyerson
GRAND RAPIDS — When you ask David Buth if his “Summer Journey” program is just another summer camp, the tall, lanky, mountain-climbing adventurer is likely to answer: “No. It’s way more than that.”
For Buth, an East Grand Rapids High School graduate who has a master’s degree in environmental science, the program is about community.
His high school and middle school students travel west to study field ecology, wildlife biology, volcanoes, mountain climbing and yoga.
Those are just some of their remarkable endeavors.
“These kids learn firsthand from people who know first-hand,” Buth said. “They study wolves at sunrise in Yellowstone, climb in the Grand Tetons, tour caves and get involved with international bird-banding projects.
“They develop rich connections with each other — the kind of connection that comes when you climb a mountain with 10 people who have your back.”
Alice Hanlon, of Ada, was one of those West Michigan students. She traveled with Buth on his 2011 Teton Tour.
“I can hike for seven hours and 15 minutes surviving on a sandwich, Fritos and Jolly Ranchers,” she wrote later about the trip in a booklet Buth compiled. “But most importantly, I can trust every single person in this group. I think that has affected me the most because, when I am away from my family, it is really great to know that I have another family right here with me.”
Ninety West Michigan students have gone through Buth’s program in the four years since he created it while teaching at Grand Rapids Christian School. Buth believes interweaving outdoor adventure, nature studies and academics makes more than smart kids; it makes healthy leaders.
He hopes eventually to develop a semester school for the Great Lakes region.
“We get kids off their butts, off their computers, off their phones and off the beaten path,” Buth said. “What sets us apart is the leadership curriculum,” said Buth, a former student at NOLS, the highly acclaimed National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo.
NOLS was founded in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt, a legend in international climbing circles. The school’s focus is expedition leadership. The school has 200,000 graduates worldwide.
Buth recently gave a presentation to a Grand Rapids-area Rotary Club. He touched on several topics: his kids, the program, what he calls the upcoming “water wars” over fresh water and how the education system is “broken.”
He said students are isolated, “not connected to the local community or environment.”
Afterward, Buth spoke about his dream to develop a school with an outdoor-based program that focuses on the Great Lakes region — a place where students would learn about more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
“Are we graduating students to understand the precious resources we have in the upcoming water wars?” he asked. “You don’t have to go to the moon or Bryce Canyon in Utah. You can get them out of the classroom and take them to a river.”
Buth’s motivation, in part, stems from his own disenchantment with public schools. He was a graduate student when he found exciting alternative programs such as the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a program that focuses on Yellowstone ecosystems, and the Mountain School in Vershire, Vt., which integrates academics with living outdoors.
Students in Buth’s 2011 program were enrolled at the Teton Science School for five of the 15 days they traveled out West.
“School was tremendously boring and too easy,” Buth said.
“I kept asking, ‘When will it challenge me?’ At the Teton Science School, I found a school that does.”
Much has been written in recent years about the benefits of getting kids outdoors, about how connections with nature benefit their overall health — emotionally, psychologically and academically.
Andrew Koning, 14, another of Buth’s students on the 2011 Teton trip, wrote this:
“I feel like I have so much more understanding about nature, and it is my prayer that with all this knowledge I will help inspire others to make a difference in nature and inspire them to think about what’s good for the future and not just the present.”
So why not a school that focuses on the Great Lakes environment — a region with a colorful cultural history, where complex sociopolitical decisions have direct bearing on the ecological health of the lakes, rivers and forests as well as the economy? There is no shortage of contemporary subjects. Invasive species and ballast-water controls are just one example; bottled water is another.
Buth is beginning to raise funds for such a program, beginning to craft his dream, piece by piece. He is looking for community support. If you are interested in his ideas, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The future of the Great Lakes region might well be better for it.
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