The Next Generation to Care for Wildlife
Juan “Tony” Elizondo, a high school teacher in Houston, and Corrin Omowunmi, a Student Conservation Association coordinator at a Philadelphia-area national wildlife refuge, share a passion for environmental awareness, wildlife conservation and connecting young people with nature.
Their work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is helping to nurture a new generation of conservationists.
In Houston, Elizondo is working with students in the Woodsy Owl Conservation Corps Green Ambassador program and the Green Amigos Latino Legacy at Furr High School. The school is piloting a habitat conservation program that allows people and nature to flourish together in the city’s industrial East End.
Under the guidance of Elizondo and fellow teacher David Salazar, the Green Ambassadors are raising community awareness and improving the land by planting gardens and orchards, helping to monitor air and water quality, and encouraging outdoor fitness. Their work is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Houston Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, one of 21 such urban partnerships that bring together community organizations, conservation nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies to help young people make a special connection to nature. The partnerships are part of the Service’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Program.
The fact that Latino students are spreading the conservation message in a mostly Latino neighborhood matters a lot to Elizondo. “If we don’t outreach to our communities that aren’t English-language speakers,” he says, “how do we expect to conserve Texas or the rest of the nation?”
In Philadelphia, Omowunmi, an African-American, has introduced hundreds of Student Conservation Association (SCA) has helped instill a sense of environmental responsibility in hundreds of young interns. Based at John Heinz at National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum since 2009, Omowunmi coordinates SCA interns as they restore trails, clean up marshes, remove invasive plants and build community garden beds at the refuge, in the surrounding Eastwick neighborhood and in the city. Their work is part of the Philadelphia Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership.
“It opens up a whole new world for them that they didn’t even know existed,” Omowunmi says. “People say, ‘I never even knew this [refuge] was here.’ They’ve lived in Philadelphia their entire life – been back and forth to the airport, rode past [the refuge] on the highway – and they just don’t even know it’s here. But when they get here, they see how beautiful it is.”
Here are three of the young people Elizondo and Omowunmi are working with:
Jainny Leos is a senior at Furr High School in Houston. A Green Ambassador for three years, she and other Green Ambassadors are helping Texas A&M University urban design professionals collect data regarding air and water quality in neighborhoods near oil refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. Leos is also helping to plant fruit trees and pollinator gardens.
“It’s been a really good experience,” she says, “because people from the neighborhood come and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ and we explain."
Leos and other ambassadors are learning about wildlife conservation work at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge south of Houston and Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge west of Houston. “I couldn’t stop looking at the Attwater’s chickens doing their [courtship] dance because it kind of reminded me of us [humans]. They were kind of doing their dance and competing against each other,” she says. “I think it’s amazing how [males] do it to impress [females], and [males] are really the colorful ones.”
Kevin Tran, a southwest Philadelphia resident, is a freshman at Temple University. A Student Conservation Association intern since 2014, he was a Career Discovery Internship Program intern last summer at John Heinz Refuge, helping to educate visitors and nearby residents about the value of conservation.
Tran sees the refuge’s marsh and woodland habitat as an urban oasis of sorts. “I can get here [from home] in less than 30 minutes and experience a whole different atmosphere,” he says. “Thirty minutes away, I don’t see red foxes. I don’t see river otters or bald eagles. It’s such a nice place to be.” You can hear Tran talking about John Heinz Refuge in this video.
Lucia Portillo, who lives in northeast Philadelphia and is a sophomore at Millersville University, has done a lot of trail work at John Heinz Refuge as a SCA intern. What she especially enjoys is the solitude of the refuge, listening to the wind blow through the trees or birds sing. “Since I live in a busy part of the city, I don’t get to hear that as much,” she says. “So when I come here it’s just the best.” Portillo is majoring in biology with a concentration in animal behavior.
“I’m thankful for partners like the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service because a lot of positive things have come out of it,” Elizondo says. “Like our students now; they probably would have dropped out of school. I’ve seen them change, and it makes me so happy.”
For more stories like this, visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuges/friends/newswire/