PHOTO ESSAY: Salt of the Earth Meets Cottonwood Trail
My outdoorsy friend Janet, who thinks I spend too much time researching and writing, often suggests outdoor activities to me. They’re good suggestions, as long as they don’t result in too many blisters.
Janet linked me to a Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) request for volunteer photographers. I took the bait, and signed up for the June 6-7 Lower Cottonwood Trail VOC trail build project — less than nine miles but a world away from my downtown Salida apartment.
But wait. The previous weekend Janet had seen the documentary film ‘Salt of the Earth’, which portrays the epic career of photographer Sebastian Salgado. I was told that I must see this documentary, and I had one day left to do so.
I complied, and am so thankful I did. ‘Salt of the Earth’ depicts humankind ravaging its own in graphic, heartbreaking images of emaciated refugees, most of the time running away from one hell into another. Many of the stories came out of Africa. The story that finally broke Selgado’s spirit was Rwanda. He turned to photographing more pleasant subject matter, which is also featured in the documentary.
The next day, off I went to photograph the Cottonwood Trail VOC. That, in itself, was an experience worthy of anticipation, but I was pleasantly surprised that there were two Boy Scout Troops from the Denver area that were also volunteering with VOC. I was told that the boys lived in inner-city Denver.
One of the troops was Boy Scout Troop 1532, a troop of refugee youth. I had photographed them earlier, in camp and as they worked at the trail build site, but didn’t know their story.
While going through the dinner line, I asked one of the boys what language he was speaking. “Rwandan,” he said.
My mind went straight to the documentary ‘Salt of the Earth’.
An adult in line, pointing to one of the other boys, said, “And he is from Uganda.” And so it went. Down the line.
The refugee boys were more comfortable speaking in their native dialects than in English, and chatted amongst themselves in their various languages, which they all seemed to understand.
How were these boys so lucky to be a part of the VOC experience? The answer is PJ Parmar.
PJ Parmar is Scout Leader for Boy Scout Troop 1532 out of Aurora CO. He is also their family physician. In fact, it was Dr. Parmar’s refugee medical practice that introduced him to these boys.
Not too many – perhaps no other – physicians make the leap from family doctor to Boy Scout leader. But Parmar saw a need through his own personal experience. Parmar also came from an immigrant family. He spent most of his life in the U.S., and early on, got deeply involved in Boy Scouts. Parmar told me that experience greatly influenced him to develop into the person he is today.
Parmar developed a love of nature through his scouting experiences, and originally planned a career that would allow him to spend his life outdoors. But then he decided to become a doctor, and to practice medicine for refugee families. PJ Parmar thought that the boys among his young refugee patients would benefit from the Boy Scouts, just as he had as a boy. So he started Troop 1532, and by default became their troop leader.
My observation is that these refugee boys have flourished under PJ Parmar’s care – both as a physician, and as a scout leader.
While exhausted adults at VOC relaxed after a day of trail building, the refugee boys went down into the valley for a game of soccer. As one volunteer remarked, it was probably the first game of soccer ever played in that valley.
The refugee boys made it back in time for our delicious dinner and plentiful dessert, but then went off for a hike on a mountain bike trail that was on the opposite side of our base camp.
I’m getting tired just writing about the boys’ boundless energy!
Local musicians played for the volunteers after dinner, but still, the refugee boys could not sit still. They took turns playing a conga drum in perfect beat to the music, while the youngest did handsprings to the cheers of the onlookers. Their smiles were contagious.
Then they had more sugar. S’mores and some more soccer play.
It was very clear that their common interest and greatest joy was soccer, and keeping that soccer ball in constant motion.
How wonderful that these lovely, energetic boys could play with their beloved soccer ball in such a breathtaking spot far away from the inner-city asphalt. They seemed to not have a care in the world.
Isn’t that what we want for all children?
Thank you to the extraordinary PJ Parmar. You and your Boy Scouts personify the very best of humanity and the human spirit.
You are the salt of the earth.
Refugee Boy Scout Troop 1532 is looking for volunteers. Learn more at http://www.volunteermatch.org/search/opp1943922.jsp
You may also view their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Boy-Scout-Troop-1532/1496346220650598
Learn more about Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado opportunities at http://www.voc.org