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Special To The Press

When we think of the U.S. Forest Service, we often think of a group of men and women dedicated to the protection and preservation of our forests and the wonderful wildlife that calls them home.

Certainly, that is their primary role. Recently, however, a group of 31 youths from two nations and three states saw a totally new dimension to services offered by the protectors of our wilderness areas.

In early June, these young men and women completed Wilderness Experience 2001 at Camp Thunderbird in the Mimbres Valley. For the third year in a row, visually impaired and signed youths, from Chihuahua, Mexico, New Mexico and Texas, have had an opportunity to get to know one another.

They shared one another's cultures and languages, and experience how people with and without sight view the world.

"Without a doubt, this has been our most successful Wilderness Experience yet," said Olivia Schonberger, vision coordinator for the Region 19 Education Service Center in El Paso, Texas.

"The youth really got on famously, finding so many common experiences and yet (coming) from varied backgrounds. The U.S. Forest Service staff at the Gila cliff dwellings outdid themselves in making the experience meaningful and fun for the kids."

As they did last year, Douglas Ballou, Regina Mueller and Trish London, forest rangers stationed at the cliff dwellings, provided the participants a meaningful understanding and an enriched experience of the area settled by American Indians some 800 years ago.

Ballou organized the staff and volunteers of the cliff dwellings to ensure a rich and rewarding event. Lon-don conducted a customized tour of the facilities that al-lowed for all the youths to explore what was home to the early settlers.

One young man, who traveled the trail in his wheelchair with some really muscled help from other participants, was the second person ever to take the tour in a chair.

Good oral descriptions, the opportunity to enter areas not available to the general public, and plenty of time to explore, made the outing very meaningful for all who traveled the one-mile trail.

The sighted peers, all outstanding young volunteers from the Cobre Consolidated Schools, gave oral descriptions, and directed hands and feet to ensure the fullest and safest experience for each of the visually impaired participants.

Mueller gave each youth the opportunity to grind corn on a matate with a mano and to plant corn; doing so in the same manner as the American Indians in their days in the area.

Joan Day-Martin, a trained bander of hummingbirds, assisted each youth in listening to the 2,080-beats-per-minute heart rate of the birds she captured, banded and then set free.

Blind youths were allowed to feel the birds and, thus, come to appreciate their size and form.

"We are simply amazed at the generosity and concern the staff of the U.S. Forest Service have given our youth," stated Hector Ronquillo, staff member of El Centro de Estudios para Invidentes, the program serving the youths in Mexico. "The wonderful patience, great verbal descriptions, bilingual presentations, and obvious love for the young men and women made the tour and presentations really powerful and meaningful. Those of us from Mexico are really impressed and appre-ciative."

Under the auspices of One Family International, the annual outing is funded by Region 19 ESC, a grant from the El Paso Community Foundation, a grant from the Cobre Consolidated Schools, a private donor and OFI.

The youths spent four days hiking, singing and playing musical instruments, enjoying special campfire presentations, and simply getting to know one another.

Berma Matteson and Francisca Scrivano of Silver City, along with several of the young participants, told stories at the campfire one night.

Matthew Meyers of Border Area Mental Health Services presented a program on tobacco cessation, along with brochures explaining the hazards of using tobacco products.

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