Meet PEEC’s Featured Volunteer: Sarah Gustafson

Sarah Gustafson

PEEC Featured Volunteer

As we sat down to talk with featured volunteer Sarah Gustafson, her enthusiasm and passion for PEEC was contagious. The theme that continued to rise to the surface was “connections”: within the community, within families, between PEEC and various organizations, with kids and nature, and finally connecting her passion for yoga and environmental education and how they surprisingly intertwine with one another. Read on to learn more about PEEC’s featured volunteer, Sarah Gustafson.

PEEC: What prompted you to first get involved with PEEC, and how have you watched it grow? 
S.G.: It seems like it just happened organically. For the first 8 or 9 years that we lived in Los Alamos, I worked as a freelance science writer and raised my kids. With the exception of Bandelier, most of my clients were out of state, so I wasn’t as involved with the community as I would have liked. When my kids got older, I joined the County’s Trails and Pathways Subcommittee. Before I knew it, I was on three different County committees! Around 1999, along came the discussion to establish a nature center. Even though we didn’t have a facility, we were determined to host our first Earth Day festival in 2000. The Cerro Grande Fire put us on hold for a while, but by early 2001, we began the process of incorporating as a non-profit. We met around each other’s kitchen tables back then. We were working towards a permanent facility from the start, but we did our best to provide educational hikes, tree plantings, and other programs for the community in the meantime.

PEEC: How are you involved with PEEC now? 
S.G.: Now my focus is on the kids, though I have felt strongly about environmental education from the beginning. Folks in Los Alamos have a great deal of knowledge to share. And we are so fortunate here that our Nature Center isn’t merely a place where people go to experience a remnant of natural habitat in an otherwise urbanized area. We get to help each other connect to the rich and diverse natural world that surrounds us.

PEEC: You seem really passionate about getting kids connected with nature. From where does that passion stem? 
S.G.: I really love this quote by Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.” That really hits home for me. Without a personal connection to nature, you’re unlikely to make the choices necessary to conserve it. Today’s kids will face such complex environmental issues when they grow up. Perhaps the most important thing we can do for them now is to teach them to care—to help them forge the deep connection with nature that comes from direct experience.

PEEC: How have you translated this philosophy to your volunteering at PEEC? 
S.G.: I served as PEEC’s first vice president and was very involved in early Earth Day celebrations. During this time, I focused on forging connections with Bandelier and other local organizations. I felt PEEC would become inherently stronger through these partnerships. In the early years, I was also helping with the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) recreation program. The perks included getting to know some of the scientific staff and having opportunities to explore parts of the Preserve that aren’t open to the general public. I thought Hidden Valley, in particular, would be a great place for the Nature Odyssey kids! I helped take them there in 2007 and have been teaching Nature Odyssey ever since. Michele Altherr and I have taught as a team for much of that time.

PEEC: What is Nature Odyssey? 
S.G.: Nature Odyssey is a summer program for children entering grades 4-6. Over the years, it has evolved to combine outdoor adventure with field science, which the kids love. For our week in VCNP, we work with education and scientific staff from the Valles Caldera Trust to develop hands-on activities. For example, in Hidden Valley we check out the water chemistry of the Jemez River and catch aquatic invertebrates. We have a lot of kids whose parents work at the Lab, so that’s their view of what scientists do. We try to instill the idea that you can do science outside, too. So we bring in geologists, ecologists, and other field scientists. Over the last 4-5 years, I’ve been developing the theme of Nature Detectives to tie the activities together.

PEEC: What do the kids love most about Nature Odyssey? 
S.G.: What they love about it really comes back to the connections they make with nature, with other people, and with themselves. They all talk about making new friends and discovering interesting things. As far as specific activities, anything that involves getting wet is a big hit! One of the most popular activities involves collecting data on the fish that live in the Jemez River. The wildlife biologists shock the fish briefly so they can collect them easily. The kids identify, weigh, and measure the fish, record the data for the Preserve, then release the fish into the river unharmed. The kids also love working with the archeologists, who teach them to throw spears with an atl-atl—a tool that uses leverage to help the spear fly farther. Last year they got to make their own atl-atl. We throw in something new each year, so the returning odysseans have some surprises.

PEEC: What is your background? 
S.G.: My background is in biology and science communications, which has really helped me in working with the kids. I approach teaching as a storyteller. We have to ask ourselves, “What story do we want the kids to come away with? How do we tell it in a way that will be interactive and compelling?” Kids of all ages love to interact with the natural environment. Sometimes that interaction is destructive, often because they don’t know any better. If we can provide opportunities that challenge them physically, emotionally, and intellectually, we can channel that curious energy. The kids can still get their hands dirty, but in a constructive way!

PEEC: Tell us more about yourself. 
S.G.: I grew up on a little farm outside of Boulder, and I raised sheep through 4-H. My parents loved working outside with the animals and living off the land as much as possible. My mom (fellow PEEC volunteer Natali Steinberg) had a huge vegetable garden. So my early connection with the natural world came from living on a farm and exploring the open space on and around our property. We also did a lot of camping when I was a kid. I attended college at UC Santa Cruz, and then settled in the Bay Area for a while. My husband and I were both working for the University of California (UC) in Berkeley when we had our first child. We wanted to raise our family in a smaller community, so began looking around. Because of UC’s connection to the Lab, when an opening for John came up here, we jumped on the opportunity. We were really attracted to Los Alamos’ access to nature and outdoor recreation, its great schools, and the chance to be closer to family. It felt like the right place, and it’s been wonderful for us.

PEEC: What do you see for our new Nature Center? 
S.G.: I’m excited—and kind of amazed—that we’re at this crossroads. We’ve come a long way from meeting around kitchen tables, dreaming of having a facility like the County is going to build. It’s a tribute to how hard so many people have worked for so long. This isn’t just one person’s dream; all along there were so many people contributing their time and skills to the effort. We can’t compete with Santa Fe culturally, but we have something pretty special to offer residents and visitors. The new Nature Center will provide a gathering place for people to share their interests and expertise, along with a springboard for folks to deepen their connections with the natural world by increasing their understanding and appreciation of it. I think it’s pretty cool that the new Nature Center will open its doors 15 years after PEEC put on its first Earth Day. I can’t wait to see what the next 15 years bring!

PEEC: Do you have any last things you would like to add? 
S.G.: I also teach yoga, and I see many connections between environmental education and yoga; they fit together very well. A central tenet of yogic philosophy is impermanence. Nature reminds us continuously that things change: mountains rise and fall, seasons change, organisms evolve. Another thing I like to bring to Nature Odyssey is yoga’s focus on paying attention. I’ve developed the Nature Detective theme for our week in the VCNP to encourage kids to use all of their senses to explore the world. Keen observation is such a fundamental part of any science. For example, if we’re going to do some birding, we’ll begin with a sound meditation. This gets the children quiet and allows them to experience the world within and around them through their sense of hearing. Opening up our senses offers a much fuller way of experiencing nature—and life in general.

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