By Mercedes Subhani, American Forests
Having grown up in the Garden State, trees were intertwined with every part of my life and nature would lure me in to explore its secrets. South Mountain Reservation was a hidden gem only known to the locals in my hometown of Union, N.J. Undoubtedly, it would be the place you could find me every Saturday morning.
A tradition started when I was a little girl, my mom would take me to go hiking on the smaller trails in search of fairies who lived in the woods. I would find their little houses adorned with acorn seats, abundantly flowered tables and tiny notes written in glitter that stated “Fairies like: Acorns, pinecones, shells, flowers and pretty stones. NOT PLASTIC.” Each time I went, their houses would be moved, reorganized or simply not there. It was the ultimate game of hide and seek between them and me. Each time when I couldn’t find them, I would leave a note saying “Mer was here, I love your new house!”
No one knows exactly when and how this tradition started, but as time went on and my senior year of high school came around, I realized that the fairies were very good at hiding from me. To continue the next generation of kids’ interest in the outdoors from my town, I decided to follow in the footsteps of those before me. My mom and I built small furniture for the fairies out of acorns, flowers and twigs and hid them all around the forest. Children could find them everywhere: underneath logs, in hollowed out trees and tucked in between a tree’s branch. A part of me was sad to realize that that would be the last time I would search for fairies, since I would be headed to American University for the fall. I didn’t want to leave my “backyard” for a new one in the nation’s capital.
Despite leaving the comforts of home — and the forest — Washington, D.C. offers so many opportunities to make a difference. When I first met some American Forests staff at my school’s job fair, I knew that being a policy intern for a nonprofit organization like this one would be the right choice for me. Not only would it give me a nostalgic feeling about my childhood, but it would put my interdisciplinary major of communications, legal institutions, economics and government to work.
Now, instead of enticing wonder in children’s minds and helping them engage with nature, I can start advocating for and pushing legislation that does the same.
For example, the Every Kid in a Park program, strongly advocated by the coalition Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) of which American Forests is a member, promotes that every 4th grader and their family have free entry for their families into more than 2,000 federally managed lands and waters. All they have to do is just download the pass. American Forests is a strong supporter of this program, signing on to the coalition’s policy statement letter to Secretary Zinke in 2018 to ensure the program’s growth and expansion.
This program and others like it are critical because three-quarters of children don’t meet the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By interning for a nonprofit that ensures children have access to “nearby nature,” I can help a new generation of kids increase their time in the forest and be amazed by its beauty and hidden gems. I won’t be forced to compromise my past interests to pursue my future endeavors.