By Tyler Valdes & TTriss Williams Renard
For over 10 years, the School of Environmental Leadership (SEL), a program of SEI, has built strong, innovative leaders who are empowered to creatively and critically analyze issues and formulate plans of action. In the spring of 2020, as growing research has demonstrated the extensive health benefits that result from exposure to outdoor environments, Marin County Parks announced the continuance of its community grant program called “Breathe/Respira!” which seeks to provide the means to help the local community have access to parks. The title symbolizes the ability of outdoor recreation and connection with nature to reduce stress and improve health with the Spanish translation of “breathe”, respira, included to underscore the importance of making parks available to all Marin communities regardless of language or cultural background. Upholding strong values of equity and inclusion, SEL was successfully awarded a grant to support equitable access to parks for underserved communities - a project that would be spearheaded by SEL students.
Under the guidance of SEI staff and the Marin Environmental Forum, 10th grade students in SEI’s flagship SEL - Marin School of Environmental Leadership (MarinSEL) - coordinated a year-long Leadership and Environmental Action Development (LEAD) project that brought students at Laurel Dell Elementary School to local green spaces. LEAD projects, a key component of SEL, are equity-forward, community-based environmental action projects that focus on policy change. While the original project design culminated in a field day for K-8 students and their families in Marin County parks, the challenge of COVID-19 restrictions called for solutions driven by creativity, a 21st century skill fostered through SEL.
After weeks of research and preparation, MarinSEL students virtually led eco-literacy lessons for 70 Laurel Dell Elementary students that provided information on visiting and connecting with Marin County parks. These students also coordinated outreach to 7 classrooms and found that 83% of students want to visit County parks more. With this knowledge, MarinSEL students followed up the virtual lessons by creating and distributing Park Exploration Kits to 56 students that included field guides, sprouting pencils, journals, binoculars, and magnifying glasses. The kits not only supported eco-literacy lessons, but also served to increase students' sense of belonging in and studying of nature and natural ecosystems. Alongside the curriculum and kits, MarinSEL students supported student engagement with the Laurel Dell campus garden by providing garden supplies such as pots, soil, and seeds. Both the kits and garden supplies were made possible through Breathe/Respira! Funds.
In order to further alleviate access to outdoor spaces, the project team leveraged Breathe/Respira! funds to empower families with the resources to embark on park excursions using their kits. MarinSEL students provided Laurel Dell families with public health tips and instructions for their kits in both English and Spanish which encouraged increased outdoor activity. Overall, 14 families enjoyed their Park Exploration Kits in local green spaces with an enriched sense of belonging and joy.
Another Laurel Dell family, enjoying time together in an outdoor setting, discovering the kit resources
With the help of dedicated Laurel Dell teachers, SEL distributed stipends to families to support standard mileage and food allowance associated with their outdoor adventures. Through empowering families with knowledge, tools, and resources, this LEAD project deepened Laurel Dell students’ connection with nature while sparking newfound curiosities and enthusiasm for the outdoors. As SEI continues to address systemic barriers to safe and healthy environments, SEL students’ dedication and ingenuity drive us closer to creating a resilient world where all communities thrive.
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