Dawna Blackstone was born and raised in the Greenville area of Maine, where her dad was a game warden, and she’s never wandered too far from its woods and waters. As a school health coordinator and part-time health teacher in Greenville, she has helped her students learn about the natural beauty around them, bringing groups to the nearby AMC lodges to hike, swim, canoe, and camp in cabins. So when AMC wanted help getting more Maine kids outdoors, she was a perfect choice for the job.
Blackstone became the new Piscataquis education programs coordinator for AMC’s Maine Woods Community Youth and Environment Project in February. In her role with the project, which is supported by funding from the family of Malcolm Hecht Jr., she works with area teachers and youth service providers to create outdoor learning opportunities that complement classroom curricula and help young people make a deeper connection with the natural world. One of AMC’s goals is to offer outdoor experiences to every student in Piscataquis County at least three times during their years of schooling.
A certified teacher who holds a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s degree in health education, Blackstone has run a cross-country ski program in addition to her work as a health teacher. She has also brought Greenville seventh-grade students to AMC’s Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins for overnight trips as part of the A Mountain Classroom program for the past four years.
I chatted with Blackstone about her experiences getting kids outdoors and her hopes for the future.
Q: What surprised you when you brought your Greenville seventh-graders to Little Lyford for overnight programs?
A: A lot of them had never even climbed a mountain. It was amazing to me. We did a canoe class with AMC a few years ago, and even though we live right near Moosehead Lake, many had never been in a canoe. Maybe boats and kayaks, but not canoes. For Greenville in particular, the kids tend to be involved in sports and clubs. They’re busy for the most part, but they’re not getting outside and exploring nature and seeing what’s in their own backyard. Plus every kid has their nose in a laptop or phone or video game. To unplug and get away from it is an odd concept for this generation.
Q: Why do you want to introduce young people to the natural world?
A: I’m excited to see the changes that come over the kids—the wonder, and the sense of accomplishment, when they say “I hiked that mountain.” When we did trips early in September, I could see that the class stayed closer-knit through the year. They’ve had this experience that I’m hoping they will remember and come back to. They may not have the opportunity to do this kind of outdoor trip again until they’re adults, aside from programs with us, but maybe someday down the road they will. I also hope they will understand it’s important to take care of our natural world and be good stewards.
Q: How did you develop your love of the outdoors?
A: My father is a retired game warden. Growing up in Shirley, I spent a lot of time outside, learning about the woods. We did a lot of swimming and hiking. We didn’t have lots of money, but we did what we could. I’ve been married to a Maine forest ranger for 20 years, and we’re both very active. I’ve always been out and doing.
Q: You’re making a professional switch, from being a health teacher to working on outdoor and environmental education. What’s the connection?
A: It’s exciting for me, a new adventure. I’m learning as well. The connection? Well, when kids are outside, they’re usually active. That’s one of the most healthy things people can do for themselves, is get outside and get active.
Q: What do your 13-year-old twin sons think of your work?
A: They’re excited that mom’s got a cool job. They’ve been in the Boy Scouts and in AMC programs. Since they were a month or two old, we brought them to the woods. The first four years of their lives, I wasn’t working, and we’d all be out in the woods from May to early November, going to the camp near where their dad is a ranger. We hiked, swam, canoed, kayaked. The programs that I’ve run, they had to come. They still enjoy it, and I hope they will continue that.
Q: How are you making the outdoors more accessible to young people in your area?
A: We’re reaching out to try to include all schools and students in Piscataquis County. I go into schools, classes come up to the AMC lodges, homeschoolers come up. The class visits are free thanks to our grant. Day trips cost just $3 a student and overnight trips just $10 a student. I’m doing summer programs with the local rec department, the YMCA, and family camps at the lodges. This year we’ve reached well over 300 young people in Piscataquis County. I hope it will just keep growing.
Photo of Dawna Blackstone with her husband and dog, courtesy Dawna Blackstone.