Volunteering for Audubon: Keeping Us Young, Helping Us Grow

By Cindy Hardin, Director Environmental Education Programs

Photography by volunteer, Leslie Davidson

As mentioned in previous articles, I oversee two environmental education programs as a Los Angeles Audubon employee.  The intent of both programs is to educate local students about the environment through classroom visits and on-site field trips.  The tour format is similar at both sites; attendees are taken on a nature walk that includes stops at various stations, where docents demonstrate and expand upon scientific concepts specific to the students’ grade level.  However, the two programs also differ in both setting and personnel.

The salt marsh education program at the Ballona Wetlands takes place on a designated Ecological Reserve, which has very limited public access.  Our staff at Ballona is mainly retired individuals, many of whom are former school teachers.  The Native Plant and Wildlife Garden Education Program at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is located in a very public and heavily used park in the Baldwin Hills area.  The majority of our staff at Kenneth Hahn consists of college interns, with a few “mature” volunteers sprinkled in for good measure.  Both programs are dynamic and effective in exposing students from underserved schools to the natural habitats that are found in our city, and I find inspiration in each and every field trip that takes place.  Unfortunately, due to conflicting geographic and scheduling situations, it is rare for personnel from each of these programs to engage with each other.  Recently, a field trip to the LA River brought both groups together for the first time this year, giving us the opportunity to get to know each other a little bit and to exchange ideas and thoughts about our experiences as environmental educators.

We all met at the terminus of the Expo Line at 9 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, March 30th to board our chartered bus and begin a trip to the LA River.  The plan was to visit two sites along the river that have seen restoration activity handled by both the city and several non-profits.  However, activities for the day began before we even boarded the bus.  Each intern or volunteer from the Kenneth Hahn program was paired with a docent from Ballona, with the purpose of interviewing each other.  Each participant was given a list of questions to ask their partner.  The idea behind the interview process was to help people get to know each other, but also to hear everyone’s thoughts about their experiences working with Audubon, and how it has affected their lives.  Little did anyone know that by signing on for this field trip they would also be helping me to gather material for an article for the Western Tanager newsletter!

Questions for interviewers and interviewees were more or less the same.  Each person was asked how long they were had they been involved in their respective programs, and what they would say to a friend to persuade them to become a docent or intern.  The questions for the mid-point of the interview did vary, however.  The college interns were asked by Ballona docents to discuss what they had learned about themselves and/or the environment, and if their work with Audubon had influenced their post-college plans.  The Kenneth Hahn interns had the chance to ask the Ballona docents if they thought volunteering kept one “young at heart”.  The consistent theme in the answers that were given was knowledge and learning.  Both age groups stated repeatedly that they had learned many new things about themselves and the natural world during their time as nature interpreters for Audubon.  The comments were fascinating, and included “I feel more connected to the environment, am proud of where I live and I can share knowledge wherever I go” and “being around young children/feeling their energy makes you feel young”.  Several of the interns did feel that their experience at Kenneth Hahn might change their career paths.  One commented that she now considers teaching as a career; another said that she now realizes that she doesn’t have to limit her future to a desk job.  More than a few of the interns also added that their experience with Audubon greatly improved their skills in the realm of public speaking, and helped them to “overcome shyness and present and speak with confidence”.  Both groups discussed what they had learned about flora, fauna, and geology of our region, and how exciting that new found knowledge was to them.  The Ballona group also commented repeatedly on how much they enjoyed meeting and making friends with like minded people.  The social bonds they formed through volunteering have enhanced their lives and their experience working together as they educate the naturalists of tomorrow.  The work does keep them feeling energized and youthful—“rewarding, purposeful and meaningful” were adjectives that appeared in several of the comments from the Ballona docents.

The results of the interviews clearly show that the environmental education programs that Audubon supports do more than educate schoolchildren about the natural world.  These programs also provide lifelong learning opportunities for all age groups, and serve an important role in keeping everyone engaged with their community and nature.  Avenues are opened and horizons broadened for all participants, with the added benefit of keeping those no longer officially in the working world productive on both a personal level and for the greater good.  The interns are able to use their Audubon experiences as a springboard to help them qualify for other educational and professional opportunities.  In fact, several of this year’s Kenneth Hahn interns have used our references for employment and other internships to further their career paths.  The value of these programs for all involved cannot be overestimated!

The interviewing process made our time in the bus fly as we chugged along to our first stop.  Our destination was the North Atwater Extension in Glendale, which is located along a section of the LA River known as the Glendale Narrows.  In this section of the river the water table was too high for the Army Corp of Engineers to line the river with concrete.  Consequently, the river at this site still has a soft muddy bottom, with lots of vegetation and wildlife present.  Willow trees, Mulefat and even a few Cottonwoods are found here, and the water eddies and flows like a natural river.  Attendant wildlife included Great Blue Herons, American Wigeons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Mallards and Ring-necked Ducks.  We were met at the park by Shelly and Bill from the fabulous Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR).  They spent almost two hours with our group, describing how the city had worked to daylight a historic stream located here that empties into the river.  By removing the stream from its concrete entombment, the city was able to plant species that are native to the habitat and create a soft bottom that helps to filter out pollutants before they have a chance to foul the river.  Wildflowers were also present and in abundant bloom.  California Poppies, Blue-eyed Grass and Buckwheat all glowed in the morning sun—and were seeing a lot of traffic from pollinating insects.  Before we bid goodbye to Shelly and Bill, we all received T-shirts from FoLAR that featured a terrific graphic of the Red-legged Frog.  This amphibian was present in the river for millennia prior to the paving of the river.  One of the goals of the FoLAR group is to “bring ‘em home by 2020”, which in our minds is a fantastic mission.

Next stop was lunch.  Those of you who have been reading about our field trips know that breaking bread together is almost always a feature of our travels, and much enjoyed by all.  We went a few miles upriver to Bette Davis Park where we all picnicked under the shade of native Sycamore trees.  Lunch was a brown bag affair, with home baked desserts and fresh fruit provided by Audubon for dessert.  After lunch there was plenty of time to continue birding and walk along the river—some of us even took the opportunity to dangle our toes in the water.  The soundtrack was the rush and babbling of the water, accompanied by the birdsong of warblers and the quacking of waterfowl.  As some of the photos attest, this section of the river looks so natural that it is hard to believe that we were in the heart of the city.

The bus ride home was quiet and filled with an air of contentment.  Some of us dozed a bit, while others chatted or quietly contemplated the beauty that we had seen in the midst of the second largest city in the country.  We all enjoyed the chance to meet some new friends and share our thoughts about our Audubon experiences, and everyone interviewed said they would have no hesitation in trying to recruit a friend to take advantage of an opportunity to become an Audubon educator.  To quote one volunteer: “Come for a tour and you will stay as a docent”.  As always, I welcome any of you reading this article to do just that!


Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 5 May/June 2013