By George Matthis
It’s a fact that America is “graying” and people who have spent entire careers advocating for and protecting the environment are worried about who will be the future standard bearers. The River Guardian Foundation and its partner organization Love a Sea Turtle share this concern and to address the issue have developed some innovative methods to make sure future generations will be well prepared and ready to fight for a clean environment.
Experienced 33 year career environmental scientist/manager George Matthis learned how difficult it is to revitalize a dying regional nonprofit water oriented organization with a poor education model. The model practiced by the former nonprofit of a one or two school, once a year-one hour long presentation by an unskilled assistant was inadequate. It didn’t achieve memorable supplemental environmental education and challenges to maintain a sufficient level of interest that lasted beyond the presentation. River basin-wide approaches and well- funded, frequent environmentally oriented activities were needed to entice youth to pursue participation in areas that would lead to future stewards and leaders.
This brief tenure with the former nonprofit led Matthis to found the River Guardian Foundation in mid-2013 and search for better methods of piquing interest in middle/high school aged youth regarding environmental awareness. Looking for answers and a seasoned, well-qualified partner organization, the River Guardian Foundation connected with Love a Sea Turtle in late 2013 and collectively crafted a better plan of action.
During the spring of 2014, the River Guardian Foundation and Love a Sea Turtle staff and volunteers participated in a service learning project that demonstrated how an organization can effectively train youth and engage communities to be more aware of their environment. RiverQuest, a 10 day-100 mile river awareness journey on the Neuse River provided participants, most of whom were high school students, an opportunity to draw attention to the need to conserve and protect our fresh water sources and reinforce the upstream-downstream connection to the ocean. The participants hosted river awareness events, toured water reclamation facilities, and engaged students and adults throughout the journey. Team members tested and analyzed water samples under the supervision of the River Guardian Foundation and support from several scientists.
Additionally, students photographed plants, animals and birds along the 100 mile river segment. After the conclusion of RiverQuest, the collected data was presented by participating students in a “State of the River” address to municipal leaders in the Neuse River Basin.
Building upon the success of RiverQuest, George and Dan, Kay and Casey Sokolovic from Love a Sea Turtle assembled a model plan that would incorporate the principles of this journey and introduce it to multiple school systems. The plan received primary funding from State Farm Insurance through their Youth Advisory Board and incorporated 6 different schools with a diverse group of students in five counties in the Neuse River Basin from Raleigh to Kinston. The scope of the project expanded STEM-focused water conservation practices and hands-on environmental service learning experiences. The students, formally designated as Neuse River Guardians, and their teachers received the necessary training and laboratory grade equipment to monitor weekly water quality conditions in several segments along the Neuse River, practice and engage others in the 40 Gallon Water Challenge water conservation effort, and plan and participate in one river/land cleanup per semester for the 2014-2015 school year.
A reflection and celebratory event in April 2015, the Neuse River Guardians 2015 Environmental Symposium, featured a keynote video address from Wendy Benchley, Ocean Conservationist and Co-founder of the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards and presentations from various experts in water quality and conservation. Teachers were also provided in-service training with NC Department of Environment and Natural Resource’s Project WET coordinator. Numerous table presenters such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and NC DENR Divisions of Water Resources and Marine Fisheries eagerly engaged students in discussions. Honored guests NC DENR Secretary Donald VanderVaart and NC DENR Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder took great interest in discussing environmental issues with students, teachers and other attendees.
The River Guardian Foundation and Love a Sea Turtle believe they have developed an effective education model that will entice youth to pursue careers in environmental sciences and become the advocates and educators necessary for future generations. Aptly stated by one of the Neuse River Guardian teachers: “This is definitely what it’s all about and what we aim to do!”
Both organizations are looking forward to expanding the River Guardian program over the course of many years and producing more environmental advocates, just more than one classroom at a time.
George Matthis is President of the River Guardian Foundation. The River Guardian Foundation advocates for and educates the public on matters related to water quality, conducts and distributes research, studies, and analysis relating to environmental issues, and monitors water bodies for potential contamination threats.