Michael Glenn has a knack for getting kids to dig in the dirt. It’s a character trait few possess in an era of on-demand television, cell phone games, and dwindling green spaces. He lives and works in one of the most heavily urbanized areas in the country, just 66 miles north of Los Angeles in southern California.
A patchwork of agricultural fields, highways, and residential and commercial development, the coastal and inland cities of Ventura County are surrounded by the wilds of the Los Padres National Forest and Santa Monica Mountains, and within eyesight of the Channel Islands that rise up from the Pacific Ocean just a few miles off shore.
This year, on his tenth anniversary with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Glenn was honored by the agency with the regional nomination for the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Award, which recognizes individuals who embody the storytelling legacy of Rachel Carson, who more than three decades ago inspired an entire generation to become stewards of our environment.
Glenn smiles as he fondly reminisces about the past ten years and what the nomination means to him. His memory bank overflows with stories upon stories of children, from kindergarteners to new college grads, finding their sense of wonder, in nature. A spark runs through each of them, ignited by an experience or moment in the great outdoors.
“Building a life-long appreciation for nature begins through childhood experiences. It’s remarkable how fortunate we are to live in such a unique part of the world here in southern California,” Glenn said. “By giving opportunities for kids to learn about our co-inhabitants – from the bugs on the plants to the birds in the skies – we can ignite a passion for wild things and wild places that carries on throughout their lives.”
His peers would describe Glenn as both a respected biologist and a kid at heart with an enamored fascination for the creepy crawlies, and furred, feathered, and scaly critters, with which we share our world.
Glenn leads the Service’s Schoolyard Habitat program in Ventura County and has worked alongside 16 schools and more than 10,000 students to design and plant native gardens that help feed and grow pollinators like the Monarch butterfly, and provide habitat for native wildlife like Western fence lizards and an array of song birds. Replacing grass lawns with drought-tolerant native plants has also meant these schools have had to use less water, and in drought-stricken California, every drop counts.
On a warm November morning, Curren School fourth grader Nicholas stares intently at a newly formed chrysalis on a milkweed plant in his school’s native pollinator garden, a garden designed and developed through the Service’s Schoolyard Habitat program.
“We all worked hard on these plants,” Nicholas said, as he delicately pointed out the chrysalis with both respect and admiration, awaiting the monarch butterfly soon to emerge from its casing. “Monarchs have a really cool life cycle and they have beautiful wings.”
Erin, a fifth grader at Curren School, says she has become an expert pollinator gardener, and credits her knowledge about native plants and pollinators to Glenn’s visits to her school. Now, Erin has been recruited as a mentor for the younger students by her teacher to help place plants, add soil, and care for the garden. At a planting event this spring, she wiped a bit of dirt off her hands and said, “Mr. Glenn came to our school to talk about native plants, and ever since then I started growing my own.” For kids like Erin and Nicholas, all it takes is a single seed, to grow a life-long love of the outdoors.
“I try to be a cheerleader for the program, but this habitat is truly for the kids and by the kids,” Glenn remarked.
This fall, Glenn worked with Curren School teachers, students, and parents, to host the first ever Dia de los Muertos Monarch Butterfly Festival, an event inspired by their native pollinator garden, and cultural connections between monarch butterflies and the Dia de los Muertos tradition. In some Hispanic cultures, the monarch butterfly migration from Canada and the United States to Mexico, represents the souls of ancestors on their spiritual journey.
Beyond a growing Schoolyard Habitat program and emphasis on monarch butterfly and pollinator conservation efforts in Ventura County, Glenn also leads the charge for environmental education programs about threatened and endangered wildlife, and works with partners to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for families and community organizations, particularly in underserved communities.
In partnership with the National Park Service, Glenn provides opportunities for families served by the Salvation Army to learn camping skills in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and take hiking adventures on Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park.
Maya, a mom who accompanied her two daughters Kaya and Lela on a recent trip to Santa Cruz Island, said that she never imagined getting the chance to visit the Channel Islands. “I had never been on a boat before,” she said. For many of the children, seeing the island foxes on the island, and whales and dolphins on the return trip to the mainland, left a lasting impression.
“Our partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided experiences for our kids that they will never forget,” said Brian Qualls, coordinator for youth activities with the Salvation Army in Ventura.
Respect and admiration for the environment is a common sentiment felt in the hallways of the schools and community organizations with which Glenn has worked, a sentiment that has not gone unnoticed by state educational groups. In 2013, Sierra High School in the Fillmore Unified School District, which represents predominantly underserved communities, received a California Golden Bell Award in the category of Sustainable, Renewable, Energy and Resource Efficient Programs for their Schoolyard Habitat project led by Glenn, students and teachers.
CondorKids, an innovative program that engages students in field and in-classroom opportunities to learn about the endangered California condor, was awarded the California Superintendents Award for Excellence in Museum Education. Glenn served on the team to develop the 27 lesson plan curriculum for the CondorKids program, which was piloted in Fillmore Unified School District in the summer of 2015.
Steve Henry is field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, and has championed the agency’s efforts to connect people to nature in the local community. “By leading classroom and community discussions about wildlife and conservation issues, Mike is not only building a foundation of natural resource stewardship amongst our neighbors, but he is also serving as a role model for young people within our agency,” Henry said. “We all have a responsibility to tell the stories of the fish, wildlife, and plants that we work to protect every day, to our partners, our peers, our neighbors, our families, and our children.”
Looking to the future, Glenn is excited to meet and introduce the next generation of Ventura County children to the sense of wonder that hooked him on nature at an early age. "There's nothing better in my job, or in my life, than seeing a little kid discover a frog or a horned lizard for the first time. Seeing the smile on their face is something I never forget.”