Just about 6 months have passed since I began working as the CVA of Canyon de Chelly. The monument has gone from its high season with daily hogan talks, weekly hikes, and 300 plus people dropping by the visitor center, to a slow and quiet visitor center with few park rangers and only mildly disturbed by the 40 people who walk in escaping the cold. Moreover, the chilly weather and brisk wind have deterred more and more people from spending extended time outside, which has been difficult in terms of trying to organize any volunteer projects outdoors.  Although last week, we did have a brave bunch of young Navajo adults from the Southwest Conservation Corps’ Ancestral Lands crew, who endured the weather to help the park’s watershed crew remove hazardous trees from the canyon. With the holiday in full swing and more wintery conditions on the way, volunteer projects and recruiting volunteers is going to have to become even more creative on my part.

A nifty board to help us teach kids about the National Park Service and Canyon de Chelly

Even though visitation to Canyon de Chelly has slowed down, our community outreach has not. Since October two park rangers and I have visited the local elementary schools in Chinle to talk with young students about Canyon de Chelly as well as the National Park Service. The program is called Reading Ranger and has been taking place for several years. For this program we drop by classrooms or set up base in the library, and spend 15 minutes reading a short book to students, followed by another 15 minutes of explaining the importance of the canyon and other parks. Now, I can’t say I was terribly excited when I was first told I would be reading to little kids. As the youngest child, I was never expected to entertain or take care of anyone younger, let alone keep the attention of 20 children ages anywhere between kindergarten and 6th grade. So you can imagine how daunting the task seemed at first. Through trial and error (and some advice from my mom and coworkers), I continue to figure out the best ways to keep their attention and convey my message.

A sticker we give to the students to encourage them to do their part to keep National Parks clean

Despite my initial trepidations and inexperience, Reading Ranger has often been the highlight of my Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. It has been a blast reading to kids children’s books about Navajo culture, many of which I remember my parents reading to me. I make sure to read with as much emotion as possible, because it’s fun to hear their gasps as coyote swallows his cousin horned toad to trick him out of his cornfield, or their giggles when Geraldine the Goat feels naked after being sheared. The students always keep me on my toes, and I never get tired of being asked some of the wildest questions when I talk about Canyon de Chelly. Seriously, they can throw you for a loop, but it’s hilarious when after explaining to them why one of our ancient cliff dwellings is called Mummy Cave, they ask if they’re allowed to go ghost busting inside them. They have even changed my mind about being called Ms. Gorman. Before I never wanted to be a Ms. Gorman since my dad is Mr. Gorman at the Junior High School, but when those 2nd graders started calling me Ms. Gorman, all I could do was coo and gush at how adorable they were. In any case, it has been awesome.

Some of favorite books the kids like to listen to

Luckily, this year we have gotten the cuteness to follow us to the park as well. We started a new challenge to encourage the local kids we read to (and by extension their families) to visit the canyon. Similar to Flat Stanley projects other students complete elsewhere, we have the Rita the Sheep Challenge. We give all our reading rangers a picture of a sheep. Why a sheep? Because sheep are an important animal for Navajos in terms of food and rug weaving. Our sheep was dubbed Rita, after many Navajo Grandmothers. The students must take Rita to the canyon and take a photo with her somewhere in the park. They then show a Park Ranger at the visitor center the photo of them with Rita in the canyon, and receive an Every Kid in a Park sticker plus a centennial t-shirt (courtesy of WNPA). It makes all of us at the VC smile to see their skillfully colored sheep, and to hear their parents or grandparents confide in us that their little one wouldn’t stop bugging them about bringing Rita to Canyon de Chelly. Haha! Mission Success!

Rita the Sheep expertly designed in rainbow colors

I write all of this with the excitement that this afternoon I get to read 1st graders.