John Heinz NWR has a team of education specialists who connect with the local schools in Southwest Philadelphia. If they aren’t going into the classrooms to teach a lesson about biology, nature, and wildlife, the students are at the refuge discovering and learning in a hands-on environment.
Nearly every Tuesday, I get the honor of working with Mrs. Thompson’s fourth grade class at John M. Patterson School. This group of students are the most excited and curious little naturalists I’ve seen in a while. If they aren’t doing an experiment with the Rangers, they’re at the refuge exploring, identifying birds and macroinvertebrates, and enjoying a picnic at lunch time next to the water.
At the end of the day, we award a naturalist of the week, commending a student for their curiosity, mindfulness, and peaceful spirit. It’s always so hard to choose only one student, as they're all so excited and curious about what the forest has to offer. If I could give all of them the title, I would! It’s good motivation for the class to continue to ask questions, participate in our activities, and get the most out of their visit to the refuge or in the classroom.
Friends of Heinz, a nonprofit that helps to support FWS, has given the class a budget of $400 to do any project they want to help nature in some way. They currently completed the last stages of voting for their favorite project out of three options they came up with together. Some of the options included helping to reduce pollution or teaching the public about respecting nature. They voted on removing trash and pollution from their neighborhood. I'm excited to see what these young nature enthusiasts do as their project develops!
Working with the community is always rewarding, but it’s especially rewarding to bring these kids out of the city and into a greenspace where they can use all of their senses freely to explore. I remember feeling the most grounded as a school student when I was outdoors. It helped to ease my mind, learn about how interconnected we are to this earth, and the importance nature held. Those moments outdoors led me to where I am now, having the forest as my office.
I think representation in the service is so important, especially at schools surrounded by ethnically diverse communities. In Mrs. Thompson's class, there is one Guatemalan student whose first language is Spanish. He speaks great English, but being able to converse with me in Spanish has brought out so much life in him. He mentioned to me that he feels like no one understands him and it can be hard for him to articulate his feelings sometimes. Needless to say, he participates all the time in class. He raises his hand, gets excited to share his opinions and thoughts on the projects we do with the class, and always participates. If he doesn’t know the word for something, I’m more than happy to help him out. It’s moments like these where I feel fulfilled and know I’m making a positive impact on these students. It’s encouraging to hear these students verbalize that they like what we do, and want to be a biologist like us one day too.