M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Send kids to summer camp 
Environmental Volunteers open up the world to kids.

Non-profit organization Environmental Volunteers leads hundreds of school-based nature and science lessons in Bay Area classrooms each year, conducts field trips for students to allow them to experience nature up close, and also has an emphasis on sending low-income kids from East Palo Alto to nature camps in the summer.

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(Karen T. Borchers / Mercury News)

By Karl Kahler / Mercury News

They say kids ask a lot of questions. But when second-graders go on a hike in Palo Alto's Baylands Nature Preserve with volunteer tour guide Sue Irvine, it's the kids who get interrogated. Relentlessly.

Irvine, an enthusiastic docent from Environmental Volunteers, points out a large outcrop of colorful plants on the edge of San Francisco Bay and asks, "What color are the tops of pickleweeds?"

"Red!" the kids agree.

"And why is it red?" Irvine asks.

Julieta Delgado, 7, has a decisive answer: "Because it is a pickleweed."

Not bad for a budding botanist from East Palo Alto Charter School who is enjoying a hike at the Baylands on a beautiful autumn day, with a warm sun, a few cirrus clouds and the occasional small plane overhead.

Environmental Volunteers, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization, takes kids on hundreds of nature hikes a year, aiming to promote responsibility for the environment through hands-on nature and science education. In the summer, it holds nature camps that give kids the chance to explore caves, marvel at redwoods, or learn some science on a trip to the beach.

Irvine again: "What is all that brown stuff called?"

"Mud!" the kids say.

"That is the mud flats, and birds eat yummy things in it," Irvine says.

Valeria Flores, 7, pipes up to say, "It looks like poo." The other kids agree.

Also gazing out at the mud flats is Marc Burton, 55, who recently left a 30-year Silicon Valley career in business and finance to volunteer his time doing public outreach for Environmental Volunteers. Earlier this year, feeling unfulfilled after a lifetime of "chasing the dollar," Burton joined Encore Fellowships, which seeks to make the world a better place by helping skilled professionals transition from the private to the nonprofit sector.

"We deal with a number of under-resourced kids, and they're genuinely curious about the natural world, but their access to it is limited," he says. "You've got kids that have never seen a redwood tree, never been to the ocean."

When a child first visits one of the Bay Area's natural wonders and learns about the need to protect them, he says, "I think it stays with the kid for an entire lifetime."

Julieta, asked whether she would like to go to a summer camp where she could explore places like caves, says, "Ooh, a cave, too dangerous. Bears live in the cave."

Is she scared of caves?

"Yep. Bears."

Has she ever been in a cave?


The kids marvel over two big arachnids, apparently garden orb spiders, hanging out on perfect webs they've strung up in the bushes.

"If I see spiders, I kill them," says Valeria.

"Don't kill the spider!" admonishes Julieta. "They're part of the plants."

Jose Brambila, also 7, gets a thrill a bit later when a little spider lands on him and he brushes it to the ground. Boy and spider, fortunately, are unharmed. Good thing Valeria, the spider killer, is looking elsewhere.

Every summer, Environmental Volunteers sponsors two science camps: SNAKE (Science and Nature Adventures for Kid Explorers) for kids entering grades 1 through 5, and Explore! for kids entering grades 6 through 8. Activities for younger kids include "Nature Detectives," in which campers learn to use a map, compass and GPS while geo-caching — scavenger hunts using GPS devices. Older kids may go surfing, rock climbing and whale-watching.

Donations would fund scholarships to summer camp for kids who can't afford it, and would buy more GPS equipment for geo-caching. Each contribution of $50 will bring a scholarship for one child. Each donation of $200 will pay for a GPS device — waterproof, of course.

Donations will also be used for scholarships to camps and summer programs such as those offered by the Youth Science Institute or Kids to Camp of Santa Clara County.

And, possibly, one donation could convince a girl like Julieta Delgado that caves are cool places where scary bears are rare.

Each $50 donation will build scholarship funds for educational camp programs around the Bay Area
Each $200 donation will purchase a GPS device for the camp program

Comments about Wish Book stories? E-mail wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972.

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