Provider Pals: Educating through interaction |

Provider Pals: Educating through interaction

From letting kids touch and taste a variety of seeds, to answering questions on hot-button issues, Justin Downs said he sees real value in taking the time to meet with students and provide them the farmer and rancher perspective on topics and issues that will impact his and their future.

“I travel around and talk to kids and folks about activism, and the importance of being active and discussing their culture with the rest of society. I ask people to give one hour a week advocating for our culture,” began Bruce Vincent of what started Provider Pals – the cultural exchange program that links urban and rural classrooms with the people who get their hands dirty to provide the basics of everyday life.

Several years ago, Bruce was doing his hour in a small Montana school, talking about being a logger. As he left, the teacher commented how well his presentation would tie into their activity of adopting a wolf the following day.

“I had 200 miles of windshield time driving home to ponder all the things that came with the wolf they adopted and named Alfred. Politics came with Alfred, and the message that ranching was bad for Alfred, logging was bad for Alfred, and more of what I call charismatic megaphones: the desire to dehumanize or vilify rural areas by humanizing nature. They have Flipper the Dolphin, and Babe the pig, and Disney – what do we have? The only thing I could come up with was us, as people,” explained Bruce.

He called the teacher back, said great about the wolf, but would she be interested in adopting a logger? She agreed to let her class adopt and track Bruce as a logger for a year. Following his final classroom visit on Earth Day, she said it went so well that she would like to adopt someone else, and did he know a farmer, rancher or miner that would be willing to do the same thing?

“That’s where Provider Pals started. The next stop was Washington D.C., where I was testifying on a timber issue. Afterward, I was frustrated and walking Pennsylvania Avenue, and found a school. I went in and asked the principal if he would like to adopt a logger – he looked at me and said, ‘a lawyer?’ I said, ‘no, the guy who made your desks,’ and we’ve been in D.C. for over 10 years now,” said Bruce, adding some 1,500 D.C. students are involved in the program annually, most of them located right on Capitol Hill.

Today, Provider Pals adopts out farmers, ranchers, miners and loggers into classrooms in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Minneapolis and numerous other cities and small towns across America, with great response and learning from both sides.

“It will blow your mind what the kids don’t know – things we take for granted,” said Molt, Montana farmer and rancher Justin Downs, who along with his wife Angie has been involved in Provider Pals for more than a decade, traveling to Little Rock, Arkansas, New York City, Anaheim, California, and around Montana to share his story and meet with classrooms that have adopted him and Angie.

“I take wheat, barley, corn and a host of other seeds with me when I meet with kids, and I let them touch it, eat and chew on the wheat until it becomes gum. Then I ask them what it is, and the most common answer I get is birdseed. Ninety-nine percent of the time they have no clue what any of the grains are. You start talking about what we make out of wheat; from bread to pasta to cereal, and pretty soon they’re asking if that means pizza too. A lot them have never been outside their city, and their world is a little bubble. It’s a great experience expanding that bubble,” added Justin.

In addition to adults, Bruce explained that providing the opportunity for kids of similar ages, and different backgrounds, to interact is another highly successful aspect of Provider Pals.

“The first time we brought a kid with us to Washington D.C., we had the auditorium of the school we were visiting full, and we had asked the kid to prepare a slideshow of his home and family. Slide one was mom and dad, slide two was something he had just killed, tongue hanging out, the whole works. That lost half the audience, right on slide number two. But, it allowed him to communicate why we hunt, and it landed completely differently than if an adult had said something because he was their peer.

“Another time, a kid in the audience stood up and asked if we were racist. This school we were at was 80 to 90 percent minorities, and we had all white kids from the rural west. A boy named Charlie stood and replied that no we weren’t, and why did he ask. The kid pointed out that we hadn’t brought any black students with us, and Charlie replied, ‘we would have brought them if we had them!’” continued Bruce of the real interactions that occur during visits to schools.

Montana ranchers Scott and Kathy Wiley agree that providing rural and urban kids the chance to interact has been one of the highlights of their involvement, explaining that they took their daughter with them to visit a seventh grade class in New York City when she was the same age.

“Those kids could relate to her, and vice versa. It was very well worth the time and a great experience for both sides,” noted Scott.

In addition to adopting out producers and industry folks, Provider Pals also hosts a camp each summer that brings rural and urban kids together in Montana. During the week-long experience, the kids interact and make friends. They also spend multiple half-days learning about a topic such as ranching, followed by a half-day field trip to a nearby ranch.

“We also have continuing education courses that teachers can take for three credit hours by attending the camp,” noted Bruce. “It is all hosted at an old Forest Service Station that was being taken over by rats way out in the country. We turned it into a natural resource learning camp, and received the inaugural Preserve American Presidential Award for our efforts.”

Funding for the camp, adoption visits, and other aspects of Provider Pals, including an interactive website complete with games and a virtual village, comes in the form of donations and sponsors. Caterpillar, John Deere, Ford Motor Company and Monsanto are among major sponsors, with multiple counties, agriculture groups and organizations and individuals also providing monetary aid to Provider Pals, which is a non-profit organization.

Volunteers donating their time and personal expertise regarding their way of life are the second key investment.

“As someone in the natural resource industry, I wanted to help educate kids that all these things in their lives don’t just magically appear – someone put it on their table or in their home or apartment. If it can’t be grown it has to be mined, and they should know that,” stated Provider Pal adoptee and coal miner Matt Young, who is the manager of the Buckskin Mine near Gillette, Wyoming.

He added that he also appreciates how well run the organization is, and that Provider Pals makes it easy to help spread what is a much needed message to the disconnected general public.

“My only concern is that it is really easy for people to sit back and shake their heads, saying it’s a shame those kids don’t know anything. It’s almost as if people feel they’re ignorant or stupid, but they’re only ignorant in the fact that no one has educated them. I encourage people to do something to help educate. If they can’t volunteer their time, perhaps they or their company can provide financial resources to help them spread the right message that these kids, and folks as a whole, need to understand about how the world works,” concluded Matt.

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