Kids in the Canyon program shows the world to Central Falls teens

Kids in the Canyon program shows the world to Central Falls teens

Don Blais, of Cumberland, is the founder of the Kids in the Canyon program at Central Falls High School. Each year, a group of youngsters commit to the training and school work necessary to take the trip to, and hike, the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

CENTRAL FALLS - With a faraway look in his eyes, Central Falls High School junior John Valdez stood before a group of peers recently to talk about what he saw on Presidents Day when he hiked to the top of Mount Monadnock.

"I couldn't believe the wild and the world could look so beautiful," he said.

Teacher Don Blais had only one reply: "Just wait until you see the canyon."

John is one of 15 students who went on a week-long hike of the Grand Canyon this month as part of the Kids in the Canyon program started eight years ago by Blais, a CFHS teacher.

Blais, who lives in Cumberland, said he started the program after hearing comments made that kids from Central Falls do not go camping.

"I think it's about providing access," he said, and opening students' eyes to the fact that national parks are theirs to use.

Each year, the group of students and about 10 chaperones flies into Phoenix and spends five days and four nights in the canyon, sleeping in tents, cooking their own food and hiking the trails. Chaperone Deb Reddy, Blais' sister and the gym teacher at Northern Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln, has been known to lead students in canyon yoga.

The group splits off into beginner and advanced hiking groups, but even basic hikes require great physicality - one hike could span 14 miles and two different elevations.

That's why Blais requires participants to complete 15 hours of CrossFit a week at the school, as well as a Saturday full of either gym work or hiking at Lincoln Woods.

The group teamed up this year with Jeff Foster, owner of Primal Fitness Club in Cumberland, and a friend of Blais' from when they were students at Lincoln High School. Foster has allowed the Kids in the Canyon program to use his facility free of charge.

Students also must make a commitment to their schooling by signing a contract that says they will have good attendance, be on time for class, and keep their grades from slipping.

Each student pays for a portion of his or her trip, while chaperones pay for their own full airfare and pitch in for a van once they arrive in Arizona. The entire trip can cost upwards of $15,000 for the group.

Funding comes from donations and yard sales. Equipment is often purchased at a major discount from retailers like the Eastern Mountain Sports in Warwick, which Blais called the group's chief sponsor as they help outfit the group and teach them about hiking. Navigant Credit Union has also given the school a grant of $2,500 each year to run the program.

It can be tough work to raise money and prepare for such an excursion while enrolled in school full-time, but these students are eager to make the sacrifices if it means having the life-changing experience described by those who are coming back for their second, third, and even seventh years.

CFHS senior Christina Mu?±oz said she wanted the trip to be a memorable way to end her high school years. In the process, she has lost 25 pounds and gained confidence.

"It helped me become more optimistic about things," she said. "It showed me anything I put my mind to, I can do it."

Jose Teixeira first went on this trip his junior year of high school. Seven years later, he is still just as enthusiastic and ready to tackle more challenges as a team.

"It's like a family to us," he said. "This group is like a family."

Alejandro Olea, now in his sixth year with the program, agreed.

When he was in high school, he kept to himself, he said. But in the canyon, he instantly made 15 new friends who he has stayed close with throughout the years.

"We instantly bonded," he said. "It was like a 'we're in this together' kind of thing."

To hear Olea talk about gaining a family through the trip made Blais take pause.

"That means everything to me," the teacher said. "That's why I started this. I saw kids that wanted to be a part of something."

Donations are always accepted. Contact Blais at kidsinthecanyon@yahoo.com for more information.