Thanks to a local organization, several area youth had the opportunity to travel out West this summer.

“Youth to Yellowstone is a 501©(3) incorporated nonprofit organization whose board of directors and officers are unpaid,” reports Bill Riley, Youth to Yellowstone of Ripley County president. “Our mission is to take high school students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to make a 12-day trip to Yellowstone National Park.”

“We currently operate as two chapters of Youth To Yellowstone – Ripley and Decatur counties. We are in the process of forming a Ripley County nonprofit corporation to more identify with ... (its) communities. We want to assure our Ripley County donors that their contributions are going toward ... (their) county students. We will continue to work as one with Decatur County, so our students have the opportunity to interact with the Decatur County students.”

“We offer scholarships to Ripley County students ... freshmen, sophomores and juniors .... Most are travel challenged and have had little opportunity to venture far from Ripley County.”

“Each student applies to the program and submits an essay explaining why he/she would like to participate in the program. Applicants and their parents or guardians then meet with one or more of our members. The board then selects the students based upon their socioeconomic need,” reveals the Milan resident.

“During the trip, the students camp eight days in Yellowstone National Park with a visit to Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyoming .... (They) also visit Mount Rushmore, Chief Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming along the way.

“The students are immersed in hiking, camping, nature study, geology, ecology and history. A tool we use to engage the students is photography. Each is furnished a high-quality digital camera. They are taught how to use the camera. They are also taught how to photograph landscapes, animals, wildflowers and more. Some students really enjoy this part of the trip. All of them get to take their photos home as a remembrance of their adventure.”

Four of this year’s participants shared their experiences:

A 16-year-old South Ripley High School student says, “My trip ... was probably the best thing that happened to me over my summer. It was a trip that I will never forget. This trip has helped me tremendously because at the beginning ... I was a shy girl who barely talked to anyone and then by the end of the trip, I came out being less shy and being more open to doing and trying things I have never done before.”

A 17-year-old Batesville High School student says, “People always wonder if Youth to Yellowstone is too good to be true. My answer is that, yes, it is too good, but it’s all true. Not only was I immersed in the magnificent landscape and wildlife of Yellowstone, but I had the opportunity to capture it all with high-quality camera equipment surrounded by such caring and inspiring leaders and individuals. I don’t think it really ever sinks in how much of a blessing this organization is to the community and individual lives.

“I would have never had the opportunity to have traveled to Yellowstone if not for this organization, and I can 100 percent say that it has changed my life. To be given to and cared for in the ways that I was on this trip, and to watch the way that care changes the lives of everyone involved, is a blessing in its highest form. Youth to Yellowstone provides an amazing opportunity to explore the world as well as the opportunity to be given the freedom to explore a world of possibilities for yourself, while being supported and cared for every step of the way .... (It) is exactly what it sounds like: A once-in-a-lifetime experience that changed lives for the better.”

A 17-year-old from SRHS adds, “My favorite part of my trip ... was when we left for the Teton National Park early in the morning. I loved it because we stopped on the side of the road, and saw the sun rise over the river in Yellowstone. That’s one of the greatest memories I’ll ever have, all thanks to Youth to Yellowstone!”

Another SRHS 17-year-old sums up the venture: “I was so blessed to be chosen to go on this trip to Yellowstone!”

Riley announces, “Over the years, “we have taken over 100 students between the two counties.”

Many of the chaperones go year after year. “All of us strongly believe that the experiences our students have in the program help them become more valuable to the community by developing a sense of charity and respect for the land, others around them and themselves. People like us tend to find each other. We learned about Youth to Yellowstone through others already involved.”

“When I was the students’ ages, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit national parks or memorials. In fact, my first visit to Yellowstone was with Youth to Yellowstone. My family just didn’t travel. After graduating high school, I joined the Navy and, of course, all that changed.

“In my adult life travels, I gained a deep appreciation for what our nation offers us. After experiencing the rest of the world, I knew firsthand how fortunate we are to have resources like the National Park Service available to us. Experiencing the good and not-so-good for myself has been a powerful influence in my life. I was lucky. Many students leaving high school never get the opportunities I got from the Navy. All of us in the organization have similar stories of why we want to participate.”

“Our unofficial motto is ‘It’s all about the kids.’ It really is. We try to accommodate anything the students want to do on the trip. We don’t always get to, but we try. There have been many times when a student asks to do something or visit some place in the park that the guides and leaders never thought of.

“Of course, there are always financial constraints. Yellowstone is expensive. The students understand that. They know we try. For example, there are rafting trips and horseback riding activities available. That is something we wish we could provide, but it’s way out of our range right now. Perhaps some day, we will find a donor who will sponsor just that part of the trip. Our program has lots of room for growth. It will just take time.

“One of the program’s original founders is Jim Waldo. Over 11 years ago, he had a vision of providing a kid with the opportunity to experience some of the wonders this nation has to offer, places that many kids only get to read about or see pictures in books. Jim and a friend of his started by taking one boy to Yellowstone. It evolved from there. Jim’s original vision guides us. He teaches us how to mentor the students and not to be just another authority figure. We’re all proud to carry on Jim’s original vision and enjoy learning from him on every trip.”

The Milan resident emphasizes his most fond memories of the excursion are, “without a doubt, the awe the students express when they see their first mountain or first bear, bison or elk. It’s so amazing that I often forget where we are and pay more attention to the kids than the environment. You must experience it to fully understand what I mean.”

Diane Raver can be contacted at diane.raver@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 220114.