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Audubon Colorado seeks volunteers for school program

As the calendar steadily creeps toward fall, Audubon Colorado is planning another elementary school nature and science program at the historic Four Mile Ranch north of Pagosa Springs.

Over the past four years, nearly 2,000 youngsters from Pagosa Springs and Dulce (N.M.) have gained valuable insight into their natural surroundings through the Jake and Terry Hershey Environmental Education Program at Four Mile Ranch. Students attending the cost-free, two-day sessions have included Pagosa Springs kindergarten through fourth-graders, and Dulce second-, third- and fourth-graders. AC has funded all expenses, including bus transportation.

Beginning Sept. 12, depending on age, students will again attend 45 minutes to an hour of classroom instruction in natural scientific concepts, before venturing outdoors for three to five hours of hands-on fieldwork through a variety of primordial habitats. Classroom training and field trips will occur on different days, with the entire series culminating by mid-October.

Audubon Colorado Southwest Regional Director Becky Gillette heads the program and expects another 700 youthful participants in this year’s schedule. Of course, to provide adequate instruction for that many students, she’ll need at least 15 adult “volunteer educators” to lead four to six small groups on different days. Scheduling will depend on educator availability.

Volunteers need no previous teaching experience to become an adult educator, but advance registration, attendance at four essential training sessions and a background check are mandatory. Once prepared for leadership, adult educators will have to provide their own backpacks and weather-related attire for all outdoor activities.

Prior to actual student interaction, educator training sessions will provide 21 hours of instruction in central topics, including adult-level natural history education, program site orientation, group management and child development information, and outdoor safety protocols. Each educator will also receive a detailed activities manual.

In the field, volunteer educators guide small groups of students where children capture and observe insects, examine creek and beaver pond life, search for animal signs, and discover predator/prey concepts. Pupils learn insect lifecycles and anatomy, the importance of water and its movements, and the diversity and basic classifications of local plants and animals, while engaging in exciting and memorable outdoor activities.

Program themes include: Explore Your World, The Five Senses (kindergarteners); Plants and People (first-graders); Insects Are Everywhere (second-graders); ‘Round and ‘Round with the Water Cycle (third-graders); and Tracks and Tales, Animals and Habitat (fourth-graders).

“A well-trained group of Volunteer Educators is the key to the success of this program,” Gillette wrote in a past press release. “These dedicated community members give young people the opportunity to explore their local environment and learn science directly from the natural world in a way that is not possible inside a school building. While expanding their own knowledge and experience, Volunteer Educators help the future leaders of our community build compassion and understanding for the natural world.”

This year, free volunteer training begins Aug. 30 at 9 a.m., and continues Aug. 31, Sept. 7 and Sept. 8. The first session will run from 9 a.m. until noon at the Ross Aragon Community Center, while the following three sessions will run from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Four Mile Ranch. Again, pre-registration and attendance are required.

Even while growing up among lofty alpine peaks and vast wilderness areas, crystalline rivers and diverse wildlife, few area youngsters stray far from television, video games, smartphones or Facebook for a good walk in the woods. Apparently — physical surroundings notwithstanding — they’re no different than most kids across America.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, today’s youth spend 90 percent of their time indoors. The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation claims kids spend five to 15 hours a day looking at a screen, whether it’s a television, computer, cell phone, iPod or Droid.

According to Gillette, that is precisely why Terry Hershey — owner of the 2,200-acre Four Mile Ranch — pushed to establish the environmental education program there. After protecting the property under a series of conservation easements; and with help from the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, the National Recreation Foundation and TogetherGreen; her ponderosa pine and oak woodlands, old-growth aspen stands, grassy meadows, spruce-fir forests, and lush riparian zones now serve as ideal centers for scientific research and outdoor education.

Along with her late husband, Jake, Ms. Hershey has devoted her life to environmental and wildlife conservation, and served on the National Audubon Society Board of Directors for many years.

In Houston, Texas, Hershey was a founding member of: the Houston Audubon Society; the Sam Houston Resource Conservation and Development Board; Urban Harvest (which stimulated development of community gardens); the Memorial Park Conservancy; the Park People; and the San Jacinto Air Conservation Committee.

For more on volunteering for this — the fifth year of the Four Mile Ranch Environmental Education Program — Gillette will present an informative slideshow at 7 p.m. tonight in the East Tile Room at the Ross Aragon Community Center. If interested, you may then register as a volunteer educator, or you can call Gillette at her office, 883-3066, for additional information. You can also e-mail her at rgillette@audubon.org.

By volunteering as an adult educator, you may help impressionable young people realize the value in understanding, appreciating, protecting and preserving our natural environment.

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