Giving Back to Struggling Communities Near the Grand Canyon
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Giving Back to Struggling Communities Near the Grand Canyon

When people visit the Grand Canyon they expect to see unbelievable views. But for many Rustic Pathways travelers, that’s not all that stands out when they journey across northern Arizona.

Program leader Emily Green says students on the Good Works and the Grand Canyon program get insights into the challenges that local people are facing. They see the benefits of neighbors helping neighbors during their service work in Flagstaff. They also learn about age-old indigenous groups as the students view historical remnants that aren’t present in many other parts of the country.

“Some people are shocked to learn how old the indigenous sites are since the United States is a very young country,” Green said. “In Arizona, you get to see the history of us persevering with the food insecurity issues in Flagstaff juxtaposed with the ancient indigenous community that survived through so much.”

These insights come early in the program as the students travel to the Verde Valley and Flagstaff, learning about communities ranging from very old to new.

“You can see how much the community cares as well as how much the work matters.”

– Program Leader Emily Green

Working as a Team to Provide Food

In the city, the students work at the Flagstaff Family Food Center and Food Bank to provide meals to local residents. The area was hit hard by the pandemic when tourism stopped. Plus, the seasonal aspect of the tourism economy raises many challenges. Green says working in the food bank was one of the best service projects she’s been involved in because of the dedication of the volunteers.

“It’s extremely well run and organized. You can see how much the community cares as well as how much the work matters,” Green said.

The students make meals that feed about 200 people a day. They also hand out food and sort donations. Rustic alumna Hope Melton said she was able to bring home lessons she learned about food issues while volunteering in Arizona in 2015.

“By the end of the program, I was so much more knowledgeable about the subject and the different approaches that are currently being undertaken to address it,” Melton said. “Nowadays food insecurity and food deserts are such a big topic in my hometown of Oklahoma City, and whenever the topic comes up, I feel as though I can speak much more eloquently on the subject because of my time in Arizona.”

Sarah Altieri, who also traveled in 2015, had a similar experience. She not only learned about the benefits of providing food to underserved populations, but she also found that giving back is really life changing.

“I have realized that my passion for service was sparked during my trips with Rustic,” Altieri said. “The world could use a little more kindness these days, and I am happy to be someone who can provide just a little spark of hope.”

These moments come on the heels of another impactful part of the program. The students step back in time and reflect on the difficulties of getting food and shelter when they visit the Montezuma Castle National Monument.

Learning About Ancient Civilizations

The Montezuma Castle is a 20-room dwelling carved into a limestone cliff. Such structures were built and used by the Sinagua people who lived in the area between approximately AD 1100 and 1425.

It’s a challenging place to live. The name Sinagua was used to refer to the local inhabitants because of its Spanish meaning – sin meaning without and agua meaning water. The name was used to reflect the lack of perennial rivers in the region.

As hunter-gatherers, the Sinagua took advantage of the natural resources in the greener Verde Valley area, planting corn and hunting for animals like deer and bears. However, living in a desert region certainly had its challenges.

“When we were there the wind was blowing so hard we were cold, and it left you wondering how they lived in a rock structure without much protection,” Green said.

Like other indigenous groups, the Sinagua people mysteriously abandoned their permanent dwellings. It’s estimated they left sometime in the early 15th Century. Among the possible reasons are drought, resource depletion and the arrival of the Yavapai people.

Regardless, the historical traces that remain give students a perspective on life in the area long before Europeans arrived.

Taking in the Views

Farther north at the Grand Canyon there were 11 other tribes that lived on the lands that now make up the national park, including the Yavapai-Apache Nation. Native people who still live in the area have maintained a strong cultural connection to the land.

Green says seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is “absolutely unreal.” She has seen her share of natural wonders. She lives in Costa Rica and has traveled extensively from the Faroe Islands to Bolivia, but her first canyon visit was a unique experience.

“You’re just driving along through a Ponderosa pine forest when all the sudden the landscape drastically changes, and there is this giant majestic hole in the earth. It blew my mind,” Green said.

The students hike along the popular South Rim of the canyon, which is part of the U.S. National Park. The unparalleled views along the way show why the Grand Canyon is listed as one of the Wonders of the World and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The sights continue as the students head to Sedona that Green describes as being a beautiful town built amid the red rocks. They also stop by the community of Arcosanti, which is called an experimental town for its inventiveness in sustainable architecture.

In between their moments at the region’s sites, the students have plenty of time to get to know each other. Altieri says that throughout the itinerary, she remembers many little things that made an impression.

“It was the long car rides laughing until my stomach hurt with my newfound friends. It was the sunset chasing, chocolate covered ice cream runs, and the late nights playing cards,” Altieri said.

These experiences ignited a love of travel that led her to other Rustic programs and a lifelong passion to help others. As she said, “Little did I know that this one experience would change my life forever.”

For more details on our Grand Canyon service program, please visit our page on programs in the United States.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.