National Wildlife Refuge System

A Goal, A Purpose, Self Esteem

Friends Forward December 2014

Jonathan is on the ground and in the water helping to control invasive Chinese tallow and giant salvinia at Red River Refuge, LA.
Credit: Friends of Red River

It all started in 2009 when Zac Burson began looking to get his middle school students outdoors. Burson supervises programs for young people with autism and intellectual disabilities in Bossier Parish Schools, LA. Burson talked with Pat Stinson, manager at nearby Red River National Wildlife Refuge, who directed him to the Friends of Red River.

Five and a half years later, the teens are still outdoors, and Burson is president of the Friends group.

Burson said he was "very conscious of the importance of students developing positive relationships in the community.” Many of the students equated the idea of community service with punishment in the juvenile justice system.  At the same time, said Burson, “the refuge  Friends were some of the most positive people in our community, involved with universities, leaders in conservation work and with a heart for service.”

With support from refuge staff and Friends, the teens came to the refuge to plant and mulch trees;  help renovate a farm house, which is now used as an education center; work with young children during a summer camp; and become involved in controlling invasive Chinese tallow. "We try to give them a purpose and some goals; they are helping us accomplish something on the refuge while they build their self-esteem," says Stinson. One former student returned for a refuge event and immediately wanted to check on the trees he had planted.

Refuge volunteers ​Blake (left) and his mentor, Bob (right) have helped maintain native trees, like this eastern red cedar​,​ and host visitors at the annual refuge celebration.
Credit: Friends of Red River

The Friends used a Nature of Learning grant to create a brochure identifying plants that people could plant in their own gardens to replace common exotic species like Chinese tallow. During the 2014 National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration, Burson's students carried a branch of the tree and passed out the brochure to help educate the public about the problem of invasives. "Even a less outgoing student with autism had his hands on that branch and could talk about it," says Burson. Two of those students now receive a stipend, funded through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invasives grant, for their work identifying and removing the plant.   

In another project, the Friends purchased materials and mentored the students as they built Aldo Leopold benches. "It's a great gift to these students to work on something that is going to last," says Burson.  "We have had some students transition to construction jobs and fulltime employment after showing their experience on the refuge. It shows commitment over time and a stamp of approval from a respected organization."

Stinson, glad for the extra help, compares working with these students to working with any group of young volunteers. "You have to have someone on the staff with the time to get them working. I try to keep a college student who does that." Stinson says he is also recruiting adult leaders from the community to work with students while they are on the refuge. 

Last updated: December 8, 2014