From dollars and cents to hammers, nails and knowledgeable volunteers, Friends are helping refuges engage their urban neighbors. Eighty percent of the American population now lives in cities – and refuges are working hard to become relevant and important to them.
The Friends of Great Plains Nature Center, managed under the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Wichita, Kansas, has grown to more than 350 members with volunteer hours exceeding the equivalent of three full-time positions. The Friends spearheaded production of 12 pocket nature guides about Kansas butterflies, mammals, shorebirds, wildflowers plus four nature books written by the children of Kansas. In part because of this exceptional series of books, the Friends received a 2016 Excellence in Interpretive Support award from the National Association for Interpretation.
The Friends of the Great Plains Nature Center funds five part-time and three full-time positions in addition to sponsoring walks with wildlife, pollinator parties and art on the trail activities. Some of the Friends-funded naturalists will participate in an after-school program at the center beginning in January.
Children in Providence, Rhode Island, have learned archery at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, planted spartina saltmarsh grass at Sachuest Point Refuge and borrowed books from Little Free Libraries in city parks. The library boxes were made by members of the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges of Rhode Island. It’s all part of the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership.
Friends pop up repeatedly as the partnership implements new ideas and engages more kids and families. The Friends contribute $6,000 toward the salary of urban wildlife refuge program coordinator April Alix, “the heartbeat and glue of this partnership,” says Rhode Island Refuges visitor services manager Janis Nepshinsky.
For a weekly Wild Girls afterschool program, Alix collaborates with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teacher from the Paul Cuffee School. Fourth and fifth grade girls hike woodland trails in Providence, explore local flora and fauna, practice journaling skills, and learn to identify birds and bugs.
An intern from the Hispanic Access Foundation organized Spanish-language nature camps at another Providence park. Urban youth from SMILE (Science, Mathematics Investigative Learning Experiences) learned about fiddler crabs, shorebirds and climate change while they planted spartina grass plugs in the saltmarsh mud.
“The most rewarding part of the urban refuge partnership is in how they are truly ‘stepping stones of engagement,’” says Nepshinsky. “A city child now has pride in knowing how to explore, and in learning what lives in these wild places right in their own neighborhood and at a national wildlife refuge. This is what gives me the most joy, when a child sees a robin or a spider with hairy legs, and their face lights up with excitement.”
When Partnership for Providence Parks wanted to bring free and accessible reading to city parks, the Friends bought materials for Little Free Library boxes. The library boxes were made by a group of retired Service volunteers known as the Tuesday Club. There are now eight Little Free Libraries in use with six more in production. Neighborhood children are responsible for painting the box in their park.