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California and the West

A Living Memorial

Tributes: Naturalist Joie Armstrong, who was slain last year in Yosemite, is inspiration for a scholarship program that lets girls spend 10 days in the wilderness.


By all accounts, Yosemite naturalist Joie Armstrong was someone you would have wanted to know. Lovely, lively and devoted to the outdoors, she was among the rare ones who find a way to meld their passions with their professions.

This month, a year after her murder near her home in the national park, 10 girls will get a gift from Armstrong. For 10 days, they will backpack, climb, cook and sleep outdoors in Yosemite's pristine wilderness. It's a chance to immerse themselves in the rhythms of the natural world.

And more.

If they pay attention, organizers say, the girls will learn that how you act when your legs hurt, your pack weighs a ton and you're five miles away from lunch, is a choice. The force of those choices can steer you through the day, and, if you're still paying attention, through life.

"Creating this program has been a major component of our healing process in this organization," said Brian Windrope, director of education and outreach at the Yosemite National Institutes, where Armstrong taught young people about the wilderness for two years. "We needed something positive to come out of something so tragic, something that would reflect Joie, and what she cared about."

Armstrong, 26, was one of four women killed in the Yosemite National Park area last year in a string of slayings that horrified and fascinated the nation. Local handyman Cary Anthony Stayner confessed to the crimes and is now awaiting trial.

Days after Armstrong's death, family, friends and colleagues created the Joie Armstrong Memorial Fund. Within a week, admirers had donated more than $10,000. To date, people from throughout the U.S. and the world have given $177,000.

The result is the Armstrong Scholars Program, which will support 10 students on wilderness adventures each summer. It's a girls-only program, run by the Yosemite National Institutes.

The Yosemite National Institutes, a private, nonprofit educational organization, helps more than 34,000 schoolchildren each year to spend time living in and learning about unspoiled natural areas like Yosemite National Park.

The group also has campuses in Marin Headlands, a seaside wilderness north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and in the Olympic National Forest in Washington State. The children live in dorms in the parks and take classes led by volunteers such as Armstrong.

Applicants for the Armstrong scholarship answer a series of essay questions, get recommendations from community leaders and undergo interviews. This year, 14 girls applied. Next year, organizers expect 60 or 70.

For a trip that would cost about $1,500, the girls pay $100. They bring their own camping equipment and a willingness to face the unknown.

"Most do not have any real backpacking experience--for most of them, it's a new experience," Windrope said. "They've all impressed us with their eagerness. They all want to learn and grow."

The first group of scholars will arrive in Yosemite later this month. They range in age from 15 to 18, and come from as far away as Vermont and Tennessee, and as close as Mariposa, Calif., which borders Yosemite.

Some are in high school, others will enter college this fall. In their essays, the girls said they share Armstrong's passion, to love and preserve America's wilderness, and to pass it on to others.

"The mere thought of abandoning the unhealthy city lifestyle for a 10-day retreat in the wilderness attracts me to the Armstrong Scholars Program," one girl wrote. Another teenager who had studied with Armstrong reflected on her young teacher's legacy.

"Joie became this redheaded free spirit in my life that kept encouraging me to ignore my fears, experience everything and live life to the fullest," the teenager wrote. "No one person has affected me more. I feel this trip, in her honor, would be a way for me to thank her for all she taught me."

Aided by two instructors, the group's wilderness adventure will revolve around three themes: discovery, challenge and leadership.

Organizers hope that among the bliss and blisters of their extended backpacking trip, the girls will develop self-awareness, make a connection to nature and to one another, learn how to work together, and take pride in their identity as women.

If the program works, organizers say, a bit of Armstrong's passion and gifts will be passed on. If so, they're lucky. As Leslie Armstrong, Joie's mother, has said, "She became all that she could be and she lived life to the fullest."

A Web page dedicated to Joie Armstrong is at Fund contributions may be sent to: The Joie Armstrong Memorial Fund, Yosemite National Institutes, Fort Cronkite, Building 1055, Sausalito, CA 94965.

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