Programs geared toward inspiring next generation of stewards: EELS workshop seeks student applicants
While other kids raced to claim their favorite kayaks, paddles and life jackets before the others, Ramona Kroll walked slowly and deliberately along the edge of the lake at the Central PA Wesleyan Campground near New Columbia during the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association’s HERYN (Helping Engage our River’s Youth with Nature) kayak and fishing day programs.
Then, quickly, she darted down and scooped up a small frog before it could jump into the water.
Through three summers, we have served hundreds of kids at our HERYN program, and each one brings different interests, skills, personality, and, for some, even emotional baggage.
But, for Ramona, the unique perspective she added to this year’s program was her keen fascination for everything reptile and amphibian. From the snakes on the T-shirt she wore to early morning registration to her specialized radar for finding these species at the campground that day, it was a cool experience.
Her team leader, Susquehanna University intern Eric Belfanti, was impressed with her high school senior-level knowledge of all things herpetology and that she had even interned with local reptile/amphibian guru Clyde Peeling, despite the fact that she is just 12 years old.
So later in the summer when we were short an instructor for our hellbender station at our inaugural Scout River Ecology Day at the Shikellamy State Park Marina, I contacted Ramona and her mother, Francesca Neville, to see if they’d be willing to help out.
When it comes to environmental education, our stance has always been to engage people of all ages, especially young people. Then to educate and ideally to empower them to go out and teach others about our river and the aquatic resources connected to it.
That is the central theme behind our EELS (Environmental Educational Leadership for Students) program. Each school year, we encourage students interested in environmental education to join us for workshops where we go over key themes for environmental education in our area, we introduce various tools at our disposal and then we empower students to set up their own programs in their hometown libraries, YMCAs, schools and other venues.
In April, a few months after an EELS workshop with our association, then-Warrior Run High School senior Audrey Shipman utilized some of our hellbender materials to engage more than 80 Hughesville-area first-graders about the species. A few weeks later, she did the same with about 30 first-graders at Meadowbrook Christian school.
“I was surprised at how interested the kids were about the hellbenders and it felt so cool how this all was coming full circle for me,” said Shipman. “I could see myself as a kid getting excited about hellbenders as I was watching these kids light up about them.”
Another of our EELS workshop graduates, Fallon Emert, also was a HERYN graduate, been on Floating Classrooms and involved in other Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association programming. She helped in various capacities this summer as a HERYN volunteer instructor with two of her sisters.
“It was interesting to be on the teaching and helping side instead of the participant side,” she said. “Being involved with the programs is a great way to learn to work with other kids and teach on various levels.”
Fallon and her mother, Tammy, were involved in the Scout River Ecology Day at an aquatic mammal station.
“I loved seeing all the kids and adults come through and talk about the mammals, the food chain, how nature relies and is really dependent on so many things we take for granted,” said Tammy. “I enjoyed watching Fallon explain things she learned from the program and experience outdoors, it really has helped my ‘introvert’ child come out of her shell!”
As for Ramona, being asked to step up as a presenter for the hellbender station required quite a bit of homework.
“I was nervous that I wouldn’t know enough about hellbenders, even though I know so much about other reptiles and amphibians, but I looked up information so that I would be more confident,” she said.
Ultimately, the hard work paid off, she admitted afterward.
“I was very excited to be able to teach people about things that I am really knowledgeable about. I felt great that I was asked to be a presenter,” she said. “I learned that I was good at sharing my knowledge with others. I also felt like I had something I could share and that was a great feeling.”
Francesca Neville, her mother, has seen the benefits the experience has had for Ramona.
“She takes pride in her knowledge about reptiles, amphibians and animals in general and it makes her very happy to share her knowledge. There is more joy in learning when you can share what you know with others,” she said.
“I think that empowering children to teach others shows them that they have worth in a world built for adults and that their voice is important.”
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association is accepting resumes of high school juniors and seniors (and certain younger, mature students) with an aptitude in nature/ecology and an excitement for environmental education for our EELS (Environmental Education Leadership for Students) program for this school year (2023-24).
For more details, go to www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/eels-program.html
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.