David Vela, former Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, says he was forever changed when, as a child, his family road-tripped from Texas to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. They traveled on a tight budget, but the experience was monumental.
“We didn’t know what national parks were about,” he explains. “We didn’t know why they were created or who created them until we got here. They’re special places, they’re wild places, they’re majestic places. It took one experience, one visit to a national park, to change my life.”
Mormon Row at Grand Teton National Park
When they arrived in Wyoming, David’s first reaction was awe at the Teton skyline. His second? Anxiety at the fact that none of the other park patrons looked like his family. “We didn’t see visitors that, frankly, looked like us and we didn’t see rangers that looked like us,” he says, referencing his Latino heritage.
But that’s no longer the case today. Vela and Grand Teton National Park implemented programs that ensure people of all backgrounds are aware of and able to enjoy all that our parks have to offer.
One of these programs is Pura Vida, an outreach program that both educates and engages Latino youth in the park. “It’s more than just a community engagement opportunity,” Vela says. “It’s a program that provides leadership opportunities, social skills, camping, even fly fishing.” But beyond outdoor experiences, he says the park’s programs offer life experiences.
David Vela, Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park (2014-2019)
“At some point we find those participants being seasonal employees, being interns, working in one of our lodges at one of our concession operations. It is a full immersion, but it’s also life skills, it’s community skills, it’s people skills, and at some times it’s mentoring. It’s the total package that will last a lifetime.”
Yair Sanchez and Noemy Lopez are former Pura Vida participants. They share how the parks and programs helped them recognize and embrace the beauty of Wyoming and their own cultural history, while also inspiring them to seek adventure and discover their strengths
“All those experiences made me more confident. It gives you a new perspective,” says Yair, who has since obtained an internship at Grand Teton National Park and now enjoys spending his free time exploring Wyoming’s vast landscape. “You meet so many people just going on the trail. That interaction is another way of cultures coming together,” he continues. And today, he’s eager to inspire others to explore and discover their own love for the land. “It feels super special to share the outdoors with my family, because you gain this bond that the outdoors creates.”
Noemy Lopez, former Pura Vida participant
Noemy says, regardless of your heritage and ethnicity, at the end of the day, being outdoors and embracing Wyoming’s diverse landscape and cultures is all about “Pura Vida” which she interprets as “living life to the fullest.”