PORTLAND - An Oregon State University Extension project to bring Mother Nature back to school campuses has won a Presidential Service Award.
The Wildlife Stewards program was one of 48 finalists selected for the award out of 3,500 nominees nationwide. Started by former President George Bush as the "1000 Points of Light" program, the service awards honor volunteers who make a real difference in solving unmet human, educational, environmental or public safety needs.
Wildlife Stewards was started in 1996 in response to growing public concern about environmental deterioration and the resulting loss of wildlife habitat in the fast-growing Portland area.
The program involves teachers, parents and students in creating an oasis of native soils, plants and brush on school campuses to lure butterflies, small birds and other wildlife.
Although there was no money in the Portland School District to launch the program, Oregon State University Extension agent Maureen Hosty and Mary Ann Schmidt, program assistant of the Multnomah County Extension Office, developed the idea as part of OSU Extension's 4-H Youth Development Program.
The National Wildlife Federation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service united to craft the program. With help from Master Gardeners and a grant from the Metro Greenspaces Program, participating schools can transform anything from a 3-foot-by-30-foot grass strip to a 14,000 square-foot lawn into a combined natural science laboratory and sensory delight.
More than 48 citizen volunteers have completed a 40-hour wildlife training course and donated at least 50 hours to the program.
"Through the work of these dedicated and enthusiastic Wildlife Steward volunteers, entire communities are coming together and working to improve their natural environment," Hosty said. "Most important, however, Wildlife Stewards helps our young people develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes that will enable them to become good stewards of our environment."
The students observe first-hand how the land and the creatures interact to survive. They see butterflies fluttering above the nodding heads of native flowers and hear songbirds greet the morning. The program is especially valuable in urban Portland, where many students may not otherwise be exposed to the natural world on a daily basis.
"When you are giving students an opportunity to plant and nurture native plants, you are giving them a chance to invest in the future," Schmidt said.
For example, she said, some elementary students who have graduated to middle school return to their former school to visit the natural areas they created. And they continue to participate in the program.
"Former students from Llewellyn Elementary School built benches in their technology classes at Sellwood Middle School and helped install them in their school yard habitat to create an outdoor classroom," Schmidt said.
So far, 20 schools in the greater Portland area and two in Salem have created mini-wildlife refuges right on their campuses. These natural areas range from a small plot reclaimed from worn turf to an elaborate system of trails through a wetland, complete with nature stops for instruction along the way.
Schools need to raise between $3,000 and $5,000 to start building their school-yard habitats. But the program requires more than money, Hosty said. The schools must be able to recruit parent and community volunteers and commit three to five years to the project. They also must get school district approval and ensure that the project will be planned, designed, planted and maintained by students.
Hosty said she hopes the award will help other schools in the Portland District and elsewhere become involved, serve as a tangible honor for the dedicated volunteers who make the program possible, and perhaps encourage potential funding sources to recognize the value of the program.
Anyone wishing to learn more about how to begin a Wildlife Stewards program may contact Hosty at (503) 725-2046 or Schmidt at (503) 725-2054.