Back to Natives Restoration has had a great start on our Habitat Restoration Service Learning program this year. The program, funded by REI, Wells Fargo, the Orange County Community Foundation, Ralphs and a Project Learning Tree GreenWorks! grant, has brought 181 students to Santiago Park Nature Reserve, a 23-acre reserve in Santa Ana, CA, bisected by over 5,000 feet of Santiago Creek.
Students volunteer in the reserve, pulling non-native weeds, casting native seed, planting native plants and more. Back to Natives staff provide educational opportunities for students, who learn about the value of biodiversity and habitat restoration.
The program introduces young people to potential science careers, and generates interest in the environment. Students learn what it is like to be a real restoration ecologist, as they participate in the entire restoration process, from beginning to end.
Students take personal responsibility for improving their environment
Students from Irvine High School, the “Do Something Club” at Garden Grove High School and others volunteered 565 hours between October and December. This is our second program year. The program will continue through May and resume again in September. This high frequency of engagement provides meaningful results for the habitat within the park, and for the volunteers who see that their efforts really do make a big difference over time.
Students do more than just pull weeds
Participants come to understand why removing non-native weeds is important. They learn about the issue of invasive plants in our wildlands, and become aware of the need to restore habitat for the benefit of biodiversity, and for people to enjoy.
After volunteering the students complete an online survey about their experience: 95% say they understand more about Back to Native’s work to conserve and restore habitat. One individual said, “I understand why getting rid of non-native plants so that natives can survive is important.” Several mentioned that they enjoyed learning while they volunteered.
Students inspire others to make a difference too
This project addresses the community need for habitat restoration AND something more difficult to put into words … it helps the community around Santiago Park take pride in the resource and want to protect it and improve it.
A biking and walking trail loops through the park, and connects with other pedestrian trails within the City and beyond. Our volunteers frequently encounter friendly park visitors, many of whom ask what they are doing. The students have an opportunity to educate the community about habitat restoration, and they receive a great deal of satisfaction when community members thank them for volunteering. After seeing volunteers in the Reserve, some community members have signed up to volunteer alongside them!
Instilling a commitment to volunteering
At its core, this habitat restoration project is designed to:
- instill in young people a sense of personal responsibility to improve environmental quality, and
- increase environmental stewardship by encouraging behaviors that result in environmental protection and improvement.
Students are learning that they can play a direct role in the health of their local natural areas and their local communities. Many of the volunteers will undoubtedly continue to volunteer at their local parks, and some will likely make volunteering a permanent part of their life.
Lori Whalen is Director of Education for Back to Natives Restoration (BTN), a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation dedicated to the restoration and conservation of Orange County and California wildlands. BTN provides education and restoration programs about native plants and biodiversity.
Editor’s note: Project Learning Tree®, the environmental education program of the American Forest Foundation, recently awarded 29 service-learning grants to schools and youth organizations in 17 states and the District of Columbia. For a list of all projects awarded, go to www.plt.org/2012-GreenWorks-grant-award-winners. Proposals for the next round of grants will be due September 30, 2013. Application forms will be made available in the spring from http://www.greenworks.org.