The McBride Internship brings Roaring Fork Valley students to Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to focus on an ancient way of life and a broader world view.
Imagine walking the endlessly rolling savannah of central Africa.
You’re following two Maasai – Rubi, armed with an elephant gun and Dominic, dressed in his traditional red Shuka. A female rhino and her young calf suddenly appear about fifty yards away. The mother rhino drops her head threateningly as Dominic waves his arms and starts shouting. Rubi drops a charge into the chamber of his rifle. The rhino charges six or seven thunderous strides, a scant hundred feet away, triggering the ancient flight instinct of eight students. They run, despite instructions to never run while on safari. I brace myself, waiting, watching, as the rhino startles and pulls to a halt in a cloud of dust.
This heart-stopping rhino encounter occurred because of an equally bold initiative that started over dinner in El Jebel in 2012. My wife Molly and I met with John and Laurie McBride to discuss the possibility of taking students from our valley to Africa. We discussed the idea in the spirit of a “what if” proposition rather than the design of a long term program. John and Laurie spent a considerable amount of time in Africa as a young couple and returned often with their children and then their grandchildren. They explored, traversed and ultimately felt transformed by a place that seems to speak an ancient language.
“When Laurie and I first went to Lewa it was the most exciting place I had ever been,” says John McBride. “We camped out in tents with David and Deliah Craig who were cattle ranchers and their young son Ian was hunting lions. When we brought our kids you saw the impact of being there reflected in their eyes. It changed them on many levels and I have always thought it factored strongly in what they did with their lives, especially Peter who has become a well recognized National Geographic photographer.”
The McBride Internship
Imagine the simplicity of the great drama of life and death played out on a vast stage by the iconic animals that populate our collective imaginations. Imagine the largest, wildest, most ferocious and fascinating creatures on the planet. The deep shifts in their own perspectives that they experienced in themselves and witnessed in their children upon returning from Africa were profound. They wondered if a similar African experience for a new generation of Roaring Fork Valley students would be just as profound. We planned one trip with a small number of local kids.
One trip became two, then three, until eventually, the McBride Internship became established as an annual offering. Every year, we receive more applications than we can accept, and Molly and I interview each candidate and make difficult decisions. The result is that we’ve been fortunate to include some incredibly bright, curious and engaged students.
One student waited three years before we selected him. Another applied late during the process and we turned him down. He assumed our decision resulted from the information he shared about his challenges paying the full fee. He immediately went out and got a job and worked the entire year so when it came time to apply the following year, he carried his painstakingly-earned $2,000 in his hand.
A Two-Week Adventure in Kenya
The McBride Internship begins when a small aircraft deposits our group on the dusty airstrip of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a 90,000 acre reserve employing some 400 Kenyans in one of the continent’s most successful wildlife conservation efforts. Each day during the half-light of dawn and dusk we are either in a vehicle or on foot. We explore Lewa’s varied landscape of swamps, savannah, rugged lava-strewn hills, forests and river beds. Sometimes, simple dramas transfix us: a baby giraffe wobbles on its new legs, or a massive herd of cape buffalo migrates across the savannah under the setting sun.
During the middle of the day, we meet with the people of Lewa who work to protect endangered species like the black rhino and the Grevy’s zebra. The success of their anti-poaching and conservation efforts comes from nurturing the trust and cooperation of the local Maasai and Meru people.
This enduring connection between Lewa and local Kenyans goes back to the mid-1980s when the Craig family turned their cattle ranch into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. One of their big challenges was to overcome the locals’ enmity toward elephants and lions because they destroyed their crops and killed their livestock. To do so, Lewa has built medical clinics, schools and water projects. It has also established scholarships and funded a very successful micro-loan program.
We feel the significance of these bonds with the people when our students meet and play with Kenyan school children – whose openness and enthusiasm for connecting with us muzungus is infectious and gets our students excited in return. When you think about how political differences polarize people, it’s truly encouraging to see how readily and eagerly young people throw aside differences in race, background, language, culture and economics and simply connect over a rousing rendition of “When I’m Gone,” a traditional Maasai dance, a game of soccer and a smile.
Eight trips over seven years and 66 students later, John and Laurie McBride have shown up not only with generous support but also during some part of the adventure each year. They join us at our camp or meet us on the trail, or drive up to our sundowners party on the last night, where each student shares the insights gained and inspiration ignited by a close encounter with a fearless ranger, a child in the classroom, a baby elephant, or at least once, a charging rhino.
Sonja Padden, 2014
I think the McBride Internship gave me the ability to see, and most importantly feel, that there were problems and challenges worth solving, and joys to be felt that were much more profound and existential in nature, than those of things like social acceptance, grades, or appearance.
James Blazier, 2019
There’s nothing in my life that rivals my time spent at Lewa. For two weeks, time stood still and all that mattered was the chirping of the birds as the sun rose through the clear sky to warm the savannah. I learned the importance of every moment and that the seemingly rapid movement of time isn’t what’s important in our lives, it’s the meaning we choose to give every day as we go about our normal lives.
Katia Galambos, 2016
It was the best two weeks of my life. I learned more than I thought possible and about a range of subjects spanning from human nature to harvester ants, and yet even though I love it, upon leaving I felt more full than sad because Lewa really did change my perspective on the world and gave me dreams that made me a better person.
Chloe Brettmann, 2016
I think it’s changed my relationship to people. When you go out and you see all these big animals and these big huge savannahs and all these amazing passionate driven people in the communities, protecting their rhinos and helping themselves by protecting their animals and caring for them. You see all these big amazing things and until then, you hadn’t realized how small you’ve made your life.
Kendall Clark, 2019
We were watching the sun set while standing over yellow hills and valleys filled with boulders and brush. The African landscape felt wild and completely uncivilized, sprawled out beneath the wide-open sky, and we were there, talking and eating like people do at a picnic. Lewa is remarkable for its environment in which humans and animals can both belong. We were a contrast to the lions that walked on the same land, but each respected the other and allowed for coexistence. (photo credit: cover image)
Nick Penzel, 2014
It’s difficult for me to express what the Lewa trip meant to me. I could go on and on about every aspect of it, because it was all so great. It all comes down to the same thing though, the Lewa trip was life changing. Lewa has affected me in ways that are deep and profound. From this trip I have gained a deeper appreciation for what we have, both in my material possessions and also in my surroundings. It taught me to observe things that before I would have never noticed.
The memories of Lewa are bittersweet. When I was in Kenya, camping with friends, I was the happiest I can ever remember being. I made deep connections with people and the animals and was content with myself and relaxed. Words can not express what Lewa meant to me, but know this: By helping me go on this trip you have changed my life. Your generosity has made me a better person and altered what I want to do with my life. Your actions have changed me, and for that I am definitely grateful.
Aaron Garland taught English and Special Education in Roaring Fork Valley schools for twenty years. He now runs a life coaching practice for young adults called TigerTiger, where he focuses on developing the executive skills of middle, high school and college students.