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Live, laugh, lava: Yellowstone offers respite for teens struggling with mental health

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The school year is coming to an end, and teachers across the country are trying to do something special for their kids. For students at a Montana school, a local end-of-year field trip means a visit to Yellowstone National Park. Jess Sheldahl with Yellowstone Public Radio reports.

JESS SHELDAHL, BYLINE: As she hikes her students down a forested trail, high school biology teacher Kim Popham says she's seen how current events are affecting them.

KIM POPHAM: Mental health-wise, it's pretty bad. Our kids are struggling, and they get stressed out so easy. Little things trigger a lot more so than ever before.

SHELDAHL: Popham thinks getting kids outdoors helps. And Yellowstone is just 90 minutes from her school in Belgrade, Mont.

POPHAM: All those hot springs out there and the microbial life that most likely is in them is - I mean, it's just - I don't know - it's cool to me. I always tell them this is the trip of a lifetime.

SHELDAHL: Popham used to do research inside the park and is taking them across boardwalks on the fountain paint pot trail. Hot water erupts from the earth in bubbling and steaming pools that make the landscape look otherworldly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUD BUBBLING)

POPHAM: So the mud pods are, like, very - I always say they're very bloopy - bloop, bloop, bloop. Because you have some gas coming up through that, that's just coming up through the mud, and it makes a cool sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUD BUBBLING)

SHELDAHL: On the way into the park, students Rielyn Schaff and Autumn Eastwood say they're into it. They've just finished stressful advanced placement tests.

RIELYN SCHAFF: So we're just, like, a little - woo.

AUTUMN EASTWOOD: Yeah. And the hiking and outdoors part...

SCHAFF: Oh, yeah.

EASTWOOD: ...Is going to be so sick.

SCHAFF: Yeah, it's going to be good.

EASTWOOD: National parks are just really cool.

SHELDAHL: Bob Fuhrmann, coordinator of Yellowstone's educational programs, says the park, with its abundant wildlife, is a great place to relax and escape school-related stress.

BOB FUHRMANN: Students who might have trouble in the classroom excel in the outdoors many times, so giving them a chance to excel and feel good and build their confidence about themselves really is great. So that's not what we're teaching; that's just what this place is able to teach.

SHELDAHL: Biology teacher Kim Popham has been leading students on field trips to the park for 10 years now. She says she's seen Yellowstone bring students a lot of joy.

POPHAM: I ask a lot of these guys, and they rise to the occasion, and they kill it. They do so much work for me. And it's just fun to see them laugh and relax and have fun and realize how much they actually learned.

SHELDAHL: For NPR News, I'm Jess Sheldahl in Billings, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "JET BLACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Sheldahl
Jess Sheldahl is a reporter and host for Morning Edition at Yellowstone Public Radio. She fell in love with public radio after becoming a DJ at the University of Montana’s college station KBGA. Since then, she’s worked at MTPR and graduated with a BA in Journalism from the University of Montana. Born and raised in Montana, Jess understands the importance of reporting on local news and issues that matter to the people who live here. She also enjoys a cold beer and a good book under the Big Sky.