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Something Greater Than Myself: A SAWS Testimonial

Roger flashes a smile during daily stretch circle.

Roger Osorio served on SAWS’s 2012 Yonkers Crew, a partnership program with Groundwork Hudson Valley, and led the 2013 Yonkers Crew as Assistant Crew Leader. Currently a senior at SUNY Albany, Roger grew up in Yonkers, New York. He is majoring in History and minoring in Sociology. He aspires to be a high school teacher and lead seasonal trail crews during his summers.

This past summer was the greatest experience of my life so far.

To explain why, I have to go back to the summer of 2001, when my mother took me to the Dominican Republic to see where she was raised as a child. Leaving the Bronx and venturing to another country seemed beyond my reality, but there I was in what I came to know as, “el campo,” as my mother called it. I bring this up is because my thoughts on that trip will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. At the age of eight, I told myself, “I’m a city kid. I belong in an air conditioned room with electricity and my Nintendo 64. I hate the woods and they should pave all these roads and put a mall here.”

Those were the feelings of an eight year old Latino boy who lived in a one bedroom apartment in the Bronx and survived on annual family income that played jump rope with the poverty line for all of his life. Here I am, thirteen years later, filled with memories spanning from valley gorges to mountain tops, from the state of New Hampshire all the way down to Coker Creek, Tennessee.

The adventure which led me to rediscover nature and its greater importance began with a school field trip during my sophomore year of high school. I had the opportunity travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin with the non-profit organization Groundwork USA. The trip opened my eyes to the opportunities that lay beyond the traditional doctor or lawyer career choices I saw amongst my classmates. I saw an opportunity to work in nature and make a living preserving something greater than myself for others to experience one day.

My experience in Wisconsin led me to land my first internship, where I worked with the same non-profit organization that took me on that life-changing trip. My involvement with Groundwork continued to lead to more travel and a greater understanding of the importance of nature and its preservation. A few years later, I went on a work trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where first I met Bill Hodge. As my fellow co-workers and I were often the most racially diverse group on those work trips, we were used to keeping to ourselves while absorbing the knowledge being shared. But Bill did something I would never forget. He sat and engaged with us. At that moment on the top of Mount Lafayette, a bond was made between generations.

Roger (third from the right) and the 2012 Yonkers Crew

A few years later, as I neared the completion of my first year in college, I learned that Bill went on to start a non-profit program called the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), a program of The Wilderness Society. He had a joint grant with Groundwork Hudson Valley to give inner city youths an opportunity to travel to the south and work in Wilderness on the national forests of the southern Appalachians. After learning I could work with Bill Hodge, I immediately hopped on board and applied. I felt fortunate to not only to earn a paid position, but also to be working alongside my closest friends who I had worked with during the past few years on the 2012 Yonkers Crew.

The experience was difficult and tiring, but every breath I took in and every sight I saw was so pure and clean, it made the adjustment to this new environment easier and more exciting. Camping in remote areas with no showers or restroom facilities was unheard of to me, but I welcomed it with open arms, and more importantly, an open mind. I can still close my eyes and hear the sound of rain drops falling on my tent as I rested during those peaceful backcountry nights.

This all led up to this past summer. I not only had to the chance to return to the south and work in Wilderness, but I also had the opportunity to lead the team from Yonkers as their crew leader. When I learned of this prospect, I was in shock and disbelief. I quickly edited my resume and submitted my application for the position. Following the conclusion of the school year, I traveled to North Carolina to begin my summer job as a Crew Leader for the 2013 Yonkers Crew.

Roger (bottom left) draws on a crosscut saw at WSI.

I was beyond excited to start this new opportunity. The fear of failing as a leader terrified me until I began training at the Wilderness Skills Institute. With all I was learning and all the people I was meeting, I began feeling more confident and aware of the skills I had acquired over the years in this field of work. I was more prepared than ever to take on the challenges I was to face in the next six weeks. When the crew arrived, I was excited and ready to begin teaching them all that I had learned over the past few weeks. Working with other experienced crew leaders also made the transition from student to teacher easier.

I faced challenges each day last summer. Whether it was making sure everyone was up and ready to work by 8 am or minimizing the crew’s impact on our surroundings, each challenge helped me grow and develop skills that would make the next day even better. Each day, I became more and more confident in my ability to wield an ax and use a crosscut saw. From the work to the interactions with the crew, to the trails I helped maintain and the places I had been in those few weeks, I cherish each and every moment. The adventure was unforgettable. My wish is that others can experience even a few days of what I experienced last summer so they can develop a greater appreciation for and understanding of the world around them, and the importance of conserving and protecting it.

This journey which started when I was eight years old, visiting the Dominican Republic, brought me from hating everything not surrounded by buildings to wanting to explore as many wild places as possible. From wishing they would build a mall to wanting the chance to reach different mountain tops in different parts of the world. Last summer changed my life by showing me I could not only give back to our wild places, but also I could take the initiative in leading others to join the cause. I want to be able to take people out of their comfort zones and on a journey into a new environment they’ve never experienced to show them more opportunities in this world. Beyond being a doctor, a lawyer, or working for some big business, there is a world out there that needs our protecting and once you see it, you will believe it too.

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