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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Sorority Embraces Environmental Stewardship at Kansas Wildlife Refuge

  group shot Zeta Days at Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Monica Green/Zeta Phi Beta

National wildlife refuges across the country are often in full bloom in spring, almost as if nature is pulling out all its stops to attract newcomers. Each spring, refuges welcome leading African American sorority Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., a national partner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and friends for Zeta Days at the Refuge. This joint initiative promotes outdoor recreation and environmental education among Zeta members, including those not familiar with all nature and public lands have to offer. During African American History Month, we revisit last year’s Zeta Days event at Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge in Pleasanton, Kansas.


On May 20, sorority sisters and their guests went “wild” at Marais des Cygnes.

Refuge staff provided a warm welcome to a new audience: Zeta’s Kansas City chapter (Alpha Epsilon Zeta), which visited for a special day of family friendly fun exploring the refuge’s more than 7,300 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, shrubland, tallgrass prairie and wetland habitats.

 girl in pink with big smile  Serenity Coleman planting milkweed for monarch butterflies. Photo by Patrick D. Martin/USFWS

An ominous storm was originally forecast, but early rain clouds parted to provide a clear, cool day for Zeta visitors. The event started with a short historical overview of the refuge and the FWS conservation mission. A heart-healthy walk along 2.25 miles of trails then brought the outdoors to life, connecting active lifestyles with adventures on public lands. A service project planting nearly 100 milkweed plants for monarch butterflies further immersed guests within the refuge’s restorative natural settings, including native prairies, surrounded by other wildflowers and fauna.

Refuge manager Patrick D. Martin highlighted native plants and animals throughout the day, while Federal Wildlife Officer Joseph Ferrero helped lead lively discussions about hunting, environmental stewardship and personal values. Recent rains provided ample opportunity to observe aquatic wildlife, including insects and amphibians, near the refuge’s riverbanks and along lush green trails. All the while, our guests enjoyed snapping photos of the scenery, wildlife and each other, making memories that will last long after their visit and remind them to return again soon.

Helen Beteet, lead Zeta Phi Beta organizer for the event, had a blast. “This experience was unique in that I felt part of a national effort to get involved in our community through exploration and appreciation of our national resources. It was both a physical and intellectual experience that was enjoyable by all ages,” she said. Beteet has been a member Zeta Phi Beta since 1979, when she was a student at Kansas University. She currently works with the organization’s youth programs, which teaches girls as young as 4 years old life skills, such as counting money and investigating science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

A former Girl Scout and Camp Fire Girl herself, Beteet is no stranger to the woods. She was, however, a newcomer to the National Wildlife Refuge System, although she’s previously enjoyed state and national parks. “It was an eye-opener,” Beteet explained. Now that she’s aware of refuges, she hopes to spread the word. “I would like to just promote it more--that this is something that’s out there, that’s part of Kansas,” Beteet continued. “I mean these [refuges] are all over the country. I told my husband, ‘When we take a vacation, we’re going to see if there’s a wildlife reserve anywhere around and we’re gonna go visit.’”

Fortunately, Beteet’s husband and family friends shared similar sentiments during the Zeta event. “I don’t think it will be difficult getting them to come back,” she said.

   FWS member and girl sit at edge of waterRefuge manager Patrick D. Martin and 6-year-old Serenity Coleman search for tadpoles. Photo by Helen Beteet/Zeta Phi Beta; 

The event also introduced several youth to outdoor recreation and conservation careers. Butterflies, tadpoles and cottonwoods--the Kansas state tree--were some of the highlights for 6-year-old Serenity Coleman. “I want to learn about ecosystems,” she said after the event, explaining that she enjoys discovering how plants and animals grow and interact with each other. “Maybe my mom will give me a frog,” Serenity cheerfully added. She hopes to volunteer at the refuge again and wants to bring her friends to plant more milkweed.

Sasha Thompkins, Serenity’s mother, was impressed by all that her young daughter learned at the refuge. “She has me interested in visiting because she was so excited when she came home,” Thompkins explained. “She just couldn’t stop talking about the things that she did,” Thompkins said. “I have to go back and we’ll have to take the whole family this time.”

 clump of fungi
Orange fungi by budding nature photographer Andres Molina.   

Beteet would like to learn more about fish and other wildlife next time, and plans to visit additional refuges in Kansas, including Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge. “There really is so much to see and to learn,” she said. “It was very peaceful to me,” Beteet continued. “We could bring a group of people--no matter what their interest was in the outdoors--and they could be comfortable.”

Indeed, Beteet hoped to take youth to local refuges at least twice year. “The time went by so fast. We could have easily stayed longer,” she said of her visit to Marais des Cygnes.

Beteet was optimistic these wild adventures would inspire the next generation of conservationists. “Hopefully one of the kids that attended on this visit (and future kids) will consider being a part of the Fish and Wildlife Refuge as a career option,” she explained. “One of our youth took amazing nature photos of Marais des Cygnes. He's interested in biology as well, so who knows, we may have a future refuge photographer!”

This year Zeta Days at the Refuge takes place during the entire month of May.  

Michael D’Agostino, External Affairs, Mountain-Prairie Region

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