It took until he was 15 years old for Johnny Figueroa of Montgomery Village to visit a national park, even though the region is rich in park resources.
He finally got his chance thanks to a new national park grant program aimed at exposing more kids to the nation’s park treasures.
Figueroa, along with 112 of his Watkins Mills classmates, visited the C&O Canal National Historical Park at Great Falls in Bethesda with his biology class Oct. 3, taking part in a stream study and hiking out to the falls overlook.
The field trip was made possible through a $230,000 grant program, Ticket to Ride, that provides money for transportation and in-park educational programs to students. The Ticket to Ride program is funded by the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to support the National Park Service, and The Walt Disney Co.
The C&O Canal National Historical Park, which includes 36.8 miles in Montgomery County, was named among 35 national park recipients of the grant funding.
Although the park is just 20 miles from his high school, Figueroa and many other local kids have never visited a national park due to cost and a lack of transportation.
Elizabeth Reeves, program coordinator with the Alice Ferguson Foundation, said her group works in 13 national parks in the Potomac River watershed. The foundation led the Watkins Mills students in their field study.
“Inner-city or suburban, our kids are not getting outdoors. This [Ticket to Ride grant program] gives them an opportunity to learn about their local national parks,” she said. “It connects them to the National Park System, fosters stewardship of the parks and the environment they live in.”
The Ticket to Ride money for this year has all been allocated to the qualifying national parks, said Marjorie Taft Hall, of the National Parks Foundation, adding she hopes the program will be funded next year, too. The individual parks are responsible for allocating their portion of the funds to local groups looking to visit.
“We ask the park and the school to show engagement with the students through a pre [visit] activity to create a base for the park experience and a post activity,” Hall said.
Hollie Lynch, education coordinator for the C&O Canal National Historical Park, said she applied for and received the maximum Ticket to Ride grant, $8,000, from the program.
Lynch said Watkins Mill High School was the only Montgomery County school to apply for the grant, but schools from four other Maryland counties and one from Washington, D.C., also applied.
“We wanted to reach as many [students] from different counties and that’s the way it worked out,” she said. “We are pretty close to having most of [the funds] obligated.”
Watkins Mill biology teacher Lauren Wilkinson learned of the opportunity to access the Ticket to Ride funds while taking a summer school class and applied for the funds right away.
“This field trip would have been about $14 per student without the grant,” she said. “The buses, over two days, were close to $2,000.”
She said reducing the cost of the field trip from $14 to $4 per student allowed more students to participate.
The grant brought their environmental and sciences lessons together in one place.
Teachers from the Alice Ferguson Foundation Bridging the Watershed program led the students in a stream study, showing them how to find and classify benthic macroinvertebrates, aquatic organisms living on the bottom of a stream.
As their post-visit activity, the students will analyze the data they collect and determine the health of the water.
“It is great, I would recommend it to everybody, it’s a fun place,” Johnny said of his first visit to the national park.