LUNCHING WITH RCDSMM— HOW WILDERNESS EDUCATION SHAPES THE NEXT GENERATION’S ACTIONS
Since the 1940s, California has supported locally-governed Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) as they implement projects on public and private lands and educate landowners and the public about resource conservation.
For over a decade, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation has been granting funds to the Santa Monica Mountains chapter of the Resource Conservation Districts (RCDSMM). Over the years, financial support from HWF and other organizations has helped this local chapter of the RCD fund programs that provide local children with access to hands-on wilderness education. Throughout the academic year, RCDSMM coordinates and hosts wilderness walks and in-class lectures that are founded in the principles of nature for K-12 students. Many of the children who benefit from RCDs classroom and outdoor education programs have grown up in densely populated cities and have had little exposure to wild spaces. For the classes that participate in the outdoor education program, local wetlands or chapparal landscapes at Malibu Lagoon, Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve, Topanga State Park, and the California Wildlife Center are transformed into active learning spaces. To supplement the in-class lectures about wildlife, plants, and marine biology, RCDSMM’s Environmental Educators guide students through nature and encourage them to observe the flora, fauna, and geographical landscapes that surround them.
Last month, The Havasi Wilderness Foundation was invited to the annual RCDSMM Annual Potluck Luncheon, where we met with an amazing team of environmental educators, staff, and volunteers. During the two-hour event, several members of the RCD team were honored for a decade or more of service as environmental educators. These educators are passionate about wildlife and nature.
Muriel Kotin, an Environmental Educator from the Sepulveda Basin and Malibu programs, has been working with the RCD for almost 30 years and was among those honored at the lunch. We sat down with Muriel to ask about her experience with RCD, here is what we learned:
Lola West for HWF: In the almost 30 years that you have worked with the RCD, what kinds of changes have you seen in wilderness education?
Muriel: It’s interesting because I have been teaching kids about nature through many different environmental movements. One thing that I have noticed is that there are waves of environmental education being nurtured by governmental policy and school policy at one point in time and then a weakening of that support at other times.
Lola West for HWF: How has the weakening of support from government and schools affected your work with the RCD?
Muriel: It seems that in times when the government pulls away from environmental support, public support is generated so that individual families and organizations have to fill the gap. This gives me hope that people will continue to rally around environmental education.
Lola West for HWF: I certainly hope so. After three decades of working with children, what keeps you motivated to continue this work?
Muriel: It’s fun and important work. My hope is that the kids who take my class leave feeling like nature is fun and interesting and that they gain a renewed sense that the environment is theirs to protect. It’s important for our planet that they have that sense of responsibility.
Lola West for HWF: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sitting down and talking with me, Muriel.
Over twenty individuals from all walks of life participated in the annual potluck celebration, bringing a slew of healthy dishes and treats to share among all in attendance. Between passing out nature-themed plates to award recipients, organizing the potluck, and delivering a speech to express her gratitude for the magnificent work that RCD educators do, RCDSMMs Education Program Coordinator, Kelly Kazmirchuk, had a busy morning. But, she was not too busy to share with us what makes working for RCD so rewarding— the people. “I work with an amazing group of dedicated individuals who genuinely care about the impact they make,” Kelly said. “When students come out to our programs or experience our in-class science stations, their faces light up and they WANT to engage the material. From the incredible teachers at the RCD to the students and the donors who make these lessons possible, it’s the people that make this work meaningful.” After spending time with Kelly and the RCDSMM team, it’s not hard to see that they share the same enthusiasm for her work that she feels for theirs. With Kelly at the helm, RCDSMMs programming has grown to serve 3,000 more students in 2018-2019 school year than in the previous year!
Jelly Kahler, a member of AmeriCorps who has been serving with RCD as a Lead Educator since October 2018, has helped educate some of the 8,000 students who benefited from RCDSMM’s programming this year. While enjoying several of the potluck dishes, we sat down with Jelly, who answered a few questions about her work at Malibu Lagoon, Topanga State Park, and the Sepulveda Basin.
Lola West for HWF: What has your experience working with the RCD been like so far?
Jelly Kahler: Overall, I would say it has been an incredible experience that has allowed me to do a lot of different things— biology, which I love, spending time out in creeks and restoring the wild lands in LA and Santa Monica, and working with the teachers at the California Science Conference.
Lola West for HWF: Science Conference? That sounds really fun! Can you tell me more about that experience?
Jelly Kahler: Yeah, I tabled with the RCD at the California Science Teachers Conference and made a makeshift watershed model using rocks and sand that teachers could use in their classroom. It was really special to be able to provide a free resource for teachers to bring these watersheds back to their classroom even if they cannot access our program or visit our field locations.
Lola West for HWF: Out of the three locations that RCD visits, do you have a favorite?
Jelly Kahler: The Malibu Lagoon! I got my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology, so I pretty much love anything to do with the ocean. The Malibu Lagoon makes for a great learning environment because there is so much there for the students to see. You’ve got tide pools and a river inlet, marine creatures, and other animals who share that habitat. The kids who visit the lagoon have a lot of fun learning about all of these different species.
Lola West for HWF: Speaking of the kids, how do you think the next generation of environmental stewards will start caring about the environment?
Jelly Khaler: I think it’s important that we give them simple steps that they can implement to understand their own personal connections and how their actions influence their watershed. If a kid understands where their plastic trash is going, or how using so much plastic affects the already-polluted ocean, and then that kid talks to their parent about plastics, that’s a good place to start.
Lola West for HWF: What do you want students to take away from your lessons?
Jelly Khaler: Above anything, I hope they walk away knowing that they do not have to go anywhere to experience nature or develop a connection to it. A lot of LA natives feel disconnected and she wants to break that disconnection. Their backyards can be just as exciting as Yosemite.
Lola West for HWF: Amen to that!
As our global landscapes are transformed by climate change, human population, industrialization, and resource extraction, the methods that we use to educate the next generation of wilderness explorers also must be transformed. While learning lessons from a book can still be powerful, allowing students to formulate connections between what they have read and what they have experienced can make a lasting impact. The time we spent at the RCDSMM luncheon gave us the opportunity to connect with the individuals who are working hard to remind children and youth that they are active participants in the effort to protect our planet. Their work is vital to future conservation, protection, and stewardship of our environment.
Jelly Kahler, Americorps Volunteer and Marine Educator for RCDSMM.
To learn more about our watershed and sustainable practices you can take to help RCDs conservation efforts, visit their website.