Celebrate the Ecology Center — become a volunteer!

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Most Wednesday and Saturday afternoons you can find 15-year-old Alexandra Garber building her resume – and examining the world’s problems up close and with dirty fingernails. Garber, a freshman at Sonoma Valley High School, is one of the Sonoma Ecology Center’s five Enviroleader interns.

“The Enviroleaders program has given me a greater perspective on our environment and what we need to do to keep it safe,” says Garber. “Without working in the garden there are a lot of things about the environment that I wouldn’t understand.”

The Enviroleaders program offers a paid stipend for a three-month internship to teens ages 14 to 18 who are interested in gaining work experience, and becoming environmentally literate community leaders. All interns get experience in sustainable agriculture and environmental restoration work at Sonoma Garden Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and various restoration sites throughout the Valley.

“Just reading up on what is going on in the world right now, the drought and global warming, I am really nervous about the future,” Garber says. “These kinds of programs are going to help educate kids and help us to solve these problems.”

To that end, the Ecology Center’s education coordinator Tony Passantino wants to reach, and teach, local kids much younger than Garber. For more than a decade, the SEC has been the only organization in the Valley providing in-class environmental education programs for Sonoma youth. Its programs are offered at no cost to schools. Each year, almost 20 classrooms at Dunbar, El Verano, Flowery, Kenwood, Prestwood, Sassarini, Sonoma Charter and Presentation participate, and more interact with the Ecology Center in less-formal ways. Passantino estimates that between all their programs, the Center reaches more than 1,100 Sonoma students each year.

The Ecology Center’s classroom curriculum adheres to California Next Generation Science Standards using Sonoma County’s biodiversity as a living laboratory.

In second grade, students learn about local oak woodland ecosystems, flora and fauna, and life cycles, and discuss the importance of conservation and preservation. The students dissect a flower and have a four-hour field trip to the Montini Preserve.

In fourth grade, the focus is on food chains, decomposers, native and insect-attracting plants, and the importance of sustainable agriculture. The program consists of classroom lessons, a hands-on examination of compost creatures and a four-hour field trip to the Garden Park.

In fifth grade, the focus is on water conservation, the water cycle, the Sonoma Creek Watershed, sediment and other pollutants, and geography. In addition, students help dissect a salmon and visit the Sonoma Creek headwaters at Sugarloaf.

Once students are in high school they can apply for the Enviroleaders program. In addition to working at the Garden Park and seasonal farm stand, this spring students are taking part in low-impact design training, learning about beekeeping and helping install new drought-tolerant landscaping, as well as hosting guest speakers from nearby wineries.

All teens are welcome to volunteer and to attend special training sessions. In April, high school students were invited to learn about conservation burns – a new technique for burn piles of vineyard/agricultural trimmings that will produce less air pollution.

The Ecology Center’s summer camps are a popular choice for ages 6 to 12. This spring the Ecology Center received a “Playmaker” grant from Super Bowl 50 Fund, which will provide scholarships for low-income children to attend the camps.

Registration is open now and the weeklong programs will run June 15 through July 17. Camp runs 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and costs $220 for Ecology Center members and $260 for non-members. Summer 2015 includes three weeks of always-popular Harry Potter-themed programming.

The camp (and most of the Ecology Center outreach) takes place at the Garden Park on East Seventh St. Quite fittingly, the site was donated by a former school teacher, Pauline Bond. On the six-acre grounds, children can interact with chickens, see beekeeping in action, visit the fig grove and the butterfly garden and shop or volunteer with plant sales and at the farm stand.

As the Ecology Center celebrates its 25th year, it has grown from a small group of passionate volunteers into a thriving nonprofit with 18 staff and more than 400 members. The kind and scope of the environmental work tackled by SEC has expanded, as has its impact.

“We are determined to inspire the next generation to protect, preserve, and restore our environment,” said Passantino.

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