Interpreting Nature

Volunteering for Youth Education Programs

By Jacqueline Li

In 2012, Los Angeles Audubon’s nascent Native Plant & Wildlife Garden Education Program will enter its fourth year. Last year the program reached 13 elementary and middle school classes in LA County, serving nearly 300 students from the city’s core. The curriculum encourages students to think critically about the relationship between living things that share their urban home. In the winter, students studied adaptations of native wildlife during “pre-site” classroom visits. Young boys and girls tested each other’s knowledge by performing the flying styles of native birds for their peers, who watched carefully and guessed the species being mimicked. During the field trip portion of the program, students draped with binoculars and compasses put their observation, identification and navigation skills to real-world use as they hiked, sketched, and birded their way through a two-hour field trip at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

The program aims to deliver high-quality, hands-on science instruction to schools within the Los Angeles urban core and also provide a valuable learning experience for volunteers from the local community who serve as field trip docents. Many youth education programs like this one depend on docents to help execute the curriculum and are constantly seeking new volunteers. Here are a few reasons to get involved, whether you are starting your career, retired from it or somewhere in the middle. And below, three youth education volunteers from various programs share their experiences.

College and career bound? If you are considering a path in education, child development, civil service or public policy, volunteering for a youth education program is a great way to enhance your skillset and your resume.

A wise investment.Youth education programs help develop the critical thinking skills of the next generation that will tackle today’s debts. Volunteering is a way to invest in the future of where you live.

Learn something and meet someone new. Volunteering doesn’t just mean donating your time. It might also mean making a new friend with similar interests or discovering a passion.

Education needs the help. A growing number of public schools in California are partnering with outside agencies to provide additional hands-on science learning. By volunteering for youth education programs, you are helping to fill a gap where schools are under stress.

Following, three youth education volunteer from various programs share their experiences.

Cehila Santiago, Business Administration major at Santa Monica College

Cehila Santiago, Business Administration major at Santa Monica College 

Volunteer Experience:

Helped with pre-taxes at Korean Youth and Community Center, 2010 and 2011 intern for Los Angeles Audubon’s Native Plant & Wildlife Garden Education Program

Future plans:

Cehila plans on helping her dad with the family business and maybe pursuing a law degree.

Q. After you completed the education program at Kenneth Hahn, did anything about you change?

A. Sure. Sometimes when I’m taking hikes or just walking, I start naming plants and teaching my little brother and sister. And they tell me, “How do you know so much?” And I’m like “I just volunteered. And you learn.” So it’s a good experience and you feel like you know more about where you’re living and what’s around you. You take more into consideration what… you have. And you find it more pleasing to look at things and know what it is.

Q. What would you say to people who are thinking about getting involved?

A. You do get experience working with kids and working with adults. Leadership skills. Because you have to be a leader at some point. It’s not a waste of time. You’re teaching little kids. They’re teaching you. It’s a win-win situation. 

Willy Oppenheim, Ph.D. student at Oxford University and Founder/Chief Executive Officer of Omprakash Foundation


Willy Oppenheim, PhD student at Oxford University and Founder/Chief Executive Officer of Omprakash Foundation

About Omprakash Foundation:

Omprakash Foundation, a non-profit organization that maintains and provides a free network fostering collaboration between over 130 educational partners in 30 countries and a community of volunteers, fundraisers, teachers, and students spread across the world. Omprakash has helped schools from Ecuador to Afghanistan receive hundreds of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and over a quarter-million books. The foundation also offers a Volunteer Grant program to defray travel and living expenses for individuals interested in serving an Omprakash Partner. 

Currently pursuing:

Having been awarded a Rhodes scholarship in the fall of 2009, Willy is now pursuing a PhD at Oxford University’s Department of Education. His research focus concerns the demand for girls’ schooling in rural Pakistan.

Why youth education?

As an eighteen-year old volunteer English teacher in India, I was invigorated by the realization that I could use my relationships with local educators to amplify their voices before a global audience and help avoid the tendency of “development” efforts to patronize and disempower those they intend to serve.

Future Plans:

Eventually, I aim to establish a series of schools that model the educational possibilities of global engagement by building curricula around relationships with international social actors. 

Cindy Hardin, 2003-Present Volunteer Coordinator & Program Manager at the Ballona Wetlands Education Program that serves 2,000 students a year from the greater Los Angeles area.


Cindy Hardin, 2003-Present Volunteer Coordinator & Program Manager at the Ballona Wetlands Education Program that serves 2,000 students a year from the greater Los Angeles area

Current project:

Developing a middle school program for Los Angeles Audubon focused on plate tectonics, renewable and non-renewable resources and scientific method.

Q. Why did you get involved at Ballona?

A. I got involved at Ballona because I was interested in doing something with my time that was productive and giving back to the community in a positive way.

Q. What made you stay?

A. First of all the lectures and the training were so fascinating and I was learning things about Los Angeles. But then the first tour that I did with the kids and to see them get off the bus and I remembered what field trips were like for me. Just to do something, just to get out of that classroom I was in everyday! And to see the light bulb. That challenge to get them thinking. Not just rote repetition, not just out of a book, but thinking. A great science program is nothing unless you can get out and see that science in action. And I had a great science education from my elementary school and I know what a difference it made.

Q. What are some challenges you have faced in coordinating volunteers?

A. The challenge is making them feel a part of the fabric. The challenge is to really figure out what everyone’s special skillset is and use that to the best venture of the program. Maybe someone doesn’t know all of the native plants very well but they’re a great birder and they get kids excited about science. That’s what matters.

Q. Do you recall one moments when you are reminded of why you do what you do?

A. Everyday I go there, something happens. And it can be something as simple as a child just coming up to me and shaking my hand. And they do that. They shake your hand and say “Thank you for letting us come. This is the best field trip I’ve ever had.” And they’ll tell me that ten minutes into it.

Q. What advice would you give to members of the “millennial” generation who are interested in youth education?

A. I would say that you will be so rewarded by your work but monetarily, not so much. But what you will get from it, chances are, will mean more to you than a whole truckload of money.


Published Western Tanager Vol. 78 No. 3 Jan/Feb 2012