A New Way of Thinking

five children hold hands around a giant tree trunk

Clydesdales, carrots, birdwatching and bracelet-making became part of the working lexicon at Kaniksu Land Trust in Sandpoint, Idaho, early in 2015 when, spurred by an Excellence Grant from the Land Trust Alliance, the staff began to explore the idea of community conservation. For an organization dedicated to land protection and restoration, it was both a new language and a new way of thinking.

“What I mean by this ‘new way of thinking,’ ” says executive director Eric Grace, “is that we’re committed to providing land, nature, conservation and open space to all in the community, especially to those who may not already be benefiting from the health, education and other benefits that open space provides. Simply put, we’re elevating the importance of conservation for all people.”

When staff brainstormed about potential partners, they discovered that sometimes it’s children who need restoration. One organization working diligently to do just that is Kinderhaven, an emergency facility for abused and neglected youths also based in Sandpoint. It provides housing for boys and girls, newborn to 18 years old, who have been removed from their homes and have nowhere else to go. Some stay only for a day; some stay for years.

“There were other ideas on our list, but Kinderhaven was definitely at the top,” says Land Protection Specialist Regan Plumb, who would manage the collaboration. She contacted Jennifer Plummer, Kinderhaven’s assistant executive director. “We explained we were trying to develop new partnerships around community conservation, to get people outdoors in nature and improve their quality of life.” Plummer invited her to tour the facility. “Part of our work is getting kids back into the physical world, helping them connect with people and form new relationships,” she says. “Appreciation for nature hasn’t been part of most of our kids’ upbringing.”

More than a shelter, Kinderhaven also works within a therapeutic framework. “We don’t just provide the necessities. Our program focuses on genuine, healthy and loving relationships between our staff and the children because healthy relationships have the power to transform their lives, to repave emotional pathways marred by abuse and neglect. We help them work through the trauma with love, routine and consistency,” says Plummer. Repaving emotional pathways by regularly getting kids out on physical pathways made immediate sense to her, she said.

KLT initially proposed a four-week program with a different outing every Tuesday. In addition to overseeing the trips, Plumb realized that KLT also could be a community conservation “connector.” She reached out to other community members who were able to offer outdoor experiences to the kids. “We don’t have the experience to create a curriculum or the capacity to do everything ourselves, and that was never our goal,” she says, “but we can make a phone call. Generally, people want to help.”

The outings blended fun with learning, alternating nature hikes (bird watching, collecting leaves, studying plants) with farm visits (gathering eggs, picking sunflowers, grooming horses, harvesting garlic) and even included a trip to the farmers market to learn about meal planning.

Margaret Petersen, a long-time supporter of KLT, as well as a Kinderhaven board member and a firm believer in the benefits of outdoor education, went along on several of the day trips. She observed that the program gave the kids a chance to be out in nature with adults who have the expertise to show them the resources in the community and with whom they could feel safe emotionally and physically. ”It’s nice for these kids to know there are adults they can trust.”

The project complements Kinderhaven’s work in re-teaching what a loving relationship should be and what loving adults are like, according to Plummer. One child who had difficulty relating to people and making friends really seemed to flourish on the outings. “I don’t think anybody had shown her that world. Being with people who wanted to show her new things changed her attitude,” Plummer says.

Plumb says her own outlook changed, too. “My job is land protection. My brain is on the technical side of things. Now I have a new appreciation of what KLT can provide to the community, how we can play a bigger role than land protection.
I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. Now I ask myself, ‘What else can we be doing?’ ”

Strategically, the collaboration made good sense as well. Kinderhaven is one of the area’s most beloved community organizations, according to Grace. The land trust (then called Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy) was organized in 2002 to work with landowners to protect land, water and wildlife in Bonner County, Idaho, and Sanders County, Montana. Over the years it broadened its mission, and in 2012 was renamed Kaniksu Land Trust. “We’re a young land trust and need community support. Kinderhaven’s endorsement of this partnership legitimizes who we are,” he says.

The project not only expanded KLT’s community connections, it provided other benefits. “We collected stories of connecting people to the land that capture the imagination,” says Grace. These stories can be used in foundation applications and appeal letters. Are we turning the kids into donors? Will they become the future generation of conservationists? Whocan tell? A Kinderhaven board member sent KLT an unsolicited gift with a note that said how much she appreciated what KLT did for the kids.
“Sometimes you have to step outside the metrics and quantitative data and just go with what seems right. Using our land conservation expertise to change kids’ lives feels right.”

KLT will continue to partner with Kinderhaven. The program was extended through the summer and will carry on in a scaled-back version over the 2015–16 school year. A full range of outings will resume in the summer of 2016.

“We have a number of community conservation projects now, but Kinderhaven is the deepest one,” says Plumb. “It’s a small segment of the community where we thought we could make a difference.” Kinderhaven’s Plummer agrees. “What a meaningful thing to instill in a child — the importance of caring for nature. Our hope is that as they incorporate these positive experiences into their hearts and minds, they will move into adulthood with a deeper awareness of themselves and their world, and maybe all of our missions will have a better chance of being accomplished.”

Kaniksu Land Trust partnered with community members to provide a wide variety of outdoor activities to the Kinderhaven children:

  • Birdwatching at a city park
  • Nature walk and nature bracelet-making on a trail
  • Hiking and finding walking sticks on a conservation property
  • Decorating hiking sticks and geocaching at a city beach
  • Picking blueberries at a U-pick farm
  • Harvesting carrots and garlic at a farm
  • Meeting goats at a farm
  • Grooming Clydesdale horses at a ranch
  • Learning about alpacas, wool working and feeding chicks at a farm
  • Feeding fish and a nature walk at a water nature center
  • Planting flowers at Kinderhaven
  • Meal planning at the farmers’ market

More Information

For more information, contact Regan Plumb, land protection specialist at Kaniksu Land Trust: regan@kaniksu.org

Photo by Fiona Hicks Photography