There is a day, not long ago, that lingers in the young mind of Elena Margarito. It was day she got a chance to go down a zip line. It was a chance for the Marin County high school student to confront her fears — to shake her nagging lack of confidence.
“I got up there and I guess fear got the best of me,” Margarito said, recalling the instance. “I look back and say, I wish I would have done that.”
But on a recent day in the Marin Headlands, Margarito wasn’t looking back — she was looking down. Straight down. Seventy feet down, clinging to a rope, rappelling down a steep hill — the Golden Gate Bridge looming above.
“Feels great because I achieved this,” Margarito beamed at the bottom of the sharp hill. “I went down the mountain.”
Margarito’s accomplishment came courtesy of the National Park Service’s new Junior Cadet Program, which was founded to help at-risk youth overcome personal obstacles while gaining first-hand experience of National Parks.
“I came from a rough neighborhood growing up,” said Golden Gate National Recreation Area chief law enforcement officer Randy Lavasseur, who founded the program. “My whole goal is to teach them you’re better than you think you are.”
During the week-long camp, high school students from Marin County learned skills like CPR, basic marching, how to operate GPS and how to perform cliff rescues.
“Here they’re learning basic search and rescue techniques,” said Lavasseur, “when they get to a victim, to set-up fall protection and to stabilize a victim and potentially extract them.”
Lavasseur started the program eight years ago while working law enforcement in Las Vegas. He’s rolling it out to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which sees its share of visitors trapped or injured by the area’s scenic but sometimes deadly terrain.
“It teaches them basic communication skills, teamwork skills,” said Lavasseure of the cadets, “especially when it’s stressful.”
Student Davon Smith grew up in nearby Marin City, yet the cadet class was his first time taking in some of the Headland’s pristine vistas. Now as an introduction, he was surveying it from precipitous heights as he repelled down the face of the hill, descending toward the graffitied and decaying military battery below.
“You’re like scared of falling in a way,” said Smith. “But you’re also, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ When you get to the bottom you feel like you accomplished something.”
Lavasseur said he hopes to create summer job openings for cadets who want to continue on, with hopes some will pursue permanent positions with the National Parks Service.
Student cadet Junior Medina stepped to the edge of the cliff, adjusting his helmet and peering down the steep embankment, eyeing the Pacific Ocean just beyond the famous bridge.
“I’m not going to lie I was scared at first,” Medina said later. “I felt like Spider-Man going down, just walking down as if it was a natural thing to do.”