Today we’re hearing from Emilie Seavey, DFP intern at the Gulf of Maine Coastal Program office, who’s sharing her experience working on urban outreach initiatives in the Portland area. Emilie has united students with nature in a variety of ways this summer, from planting pollinator gardens to facilitating field trips to National Wildlife Refuges. Special thanks to Kirstin Underwood who instrumental in making these outreach initiatives happen, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and partners at Maine Audubon.
A mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, French, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Lingala, and Kirundi immediately filled the air as we watched fifty high school students file off the school bus and into the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge parking lot.
Gulf of Maine Coastal Program biologist Kirstin Underwood, assistant refuge manager Ryan Kleinert, outreach intern Cassie Cain, Maine Conservation Corps environmental steward Rebekah Smith and I greeted the crowd with trail maps, Piping Plover temporary tattoos, and as much enthusiasm as we could manage.
These students – representing over a dozen countries, including Syria, Tanzania, and Guatemala – are English language learners, taking summer classes at Deering High School in Portland, Maine in order to gain proficiency in English before returning to school in the fall. Most of the students have been living in the U.S. for less than a year and, after talking with students and teachers, we learned that many students did not have access to safe green spaces in their home countries.
Kirstin and I only met this group a few weeks ago, when we came to visit the high school with Eric Topper, the Maine Audubon outreach coordinator, to help the students plant a pollinator garden. After a few mornings of weeding, shoveling compost, and planting milkweed, Kirstin had a crazy idea: if we could bring a green space to the students, could we bring the students to a green space?
Within a matter of hours, Kirstin reached out to the folks at Rachel Carson NWR, and the refuge offered funding to pay for a school bus. Kirstin and I visited the students again to provide them with some information about the history of the refuge and some animals they might see during their visit. Many of the students wanted to know if they would encounter poisonous snakes or other dangerous animals, and we quickly realized the importance of emphasizing that we were going to a green space where everyone would feel safe and comfortable.
The day of the field trip finally arrived. As we handed the students bird and plant guides, I could tell that all the visitors, teachers included, were excited to spend the morning outside rather than in the classroom. We took off down the trail, stopping at various viewing decks that looked out over the salt marsh. The students spotted everything from Great Blue Herons to eastern chipmunks as they fussed over pairs of shared binoculars. Ryan, Cassie, and Rebekah managed to keep up in answering the constant stream of questions from both the students and the teachers.
While some students were enthusiastic to check out the wildlife, others preferred sitting quietly or chatting with friends. After walking the trail, students wandered over to the small pollinator garden near the visitor center to practice plant identification. No matter what they chose to do with their short time at the refuge, it was a relief to see that people were relaxed and enjoying themselves.
We watched the students file back onto the bus after exchanging a few fist bumps and jumping into some selfies. Later that week, Molly Callahan, who leads the English language learning program, reached out to us to say that several of the students had come to her to say that they enjoyed the birds and the scenery and that they would like to go back to the refuge with their families. It was a successful first introduction to the National Wildlife Refuge system, and we hope for many, many more to come