Guest Post – from Brandi Clark Burton
This post was written by Brandi Clark Burton. Brandi has participated in Families in Nature events for the last four years with her own family and is now a board member and volunteer activity leader for Ridgetop Elementary School, one of Austin’s premier dual language Spanish-English schools. She is also the founder of the Austin EcoNetwork
This was a BIG week for Families in Nature and I could not be more proud and excited to be a part of it. Families in Nature’s mission is to connect children and their families to nature and to each other through time spent learning, playing, and volunteering outdoors. It is our vision to inspire all families to fall in love with nature and foster the next generation of conservationists.
We just had our first public-facing event, which one attendee called, “ a life changing experience”. Participants who packed the sold-out Alamo Drafthouse Village Theater were taken on a visual, intellectual, and emotional ride that left people inspired to take personal action, keep learning about coral ecology and climate change, and find ways that we can make a difference.
Founder and Executive Director of Families in Nature, Heather Kuhlken, kicked off the evening sharing her own brief personal background about how as a child she was always most at home in the water. She explained that it was the best way to calm her as a baby (as well as now as an adult). In fact, it was the feeling of “home” that she finds in water that formed the foundation for her love of oceans, marine biology and diving.
We then watched the eye-opening, and at times heart wrenching, documentary Chasing Coral which captures what is happening in our changing oceans, largely due to climate change. I was shocked to learn that more than 90 percent of the additional heat trapped by greenhouse gasses has impacted ocean temperatures even more than our ambient air temperature and is resulting in massive coral bleaching events and coral die-offs.
Next, we witnessed the world premiere of the remarkably well-made awareness-raising video called Sunburnt Reef, produced by 17-year-old Isabelle Galko (which you can watch above). It was her culminating project to become the first-ever Certified Junior Ecologist, for which she was honored at the event. In the video, Galko outlines the damage that occurs in coral reef health from chemical sunscreens. She then encourages people to wear rash guards (to reduce the amount of skin that actually needs sunscreen) and then to choose sunscreens that do not have reef-harming and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like Oxybenzone. Through national and international partners and supporters, Isabelle’s film will have global reach to encourage ocean conservation.
The evening was wrapped with an all-star panel of youth and adult ocean experts who answered questions about coral biology, supercorals, captive coral propagation, and our human impacts on them. The panel included:
- Tanya Streeter – World Champion free-diver, Ocean Lover
- Dr Elizabeth McLeod: – Coral expert and Climate Change Scientist
- Heather Kuhlken – Marine Biologist, Founder/Director of FiN
- Isabelle Galko (18) – Certified Junior Ecologist
- Andrew Kuhlken (16) – Reef habitat design technician for Reef Life Restoration, Junior Ecologist Candidate
- Noah Gorelick (13) – Aquarist, Coral farmer, Junior Ecologist Candidate
Slow growth yielding to rapid expansion
Starting about 10 years ago, educator and marine biologist Heather Kuhlken started informally taking her family and friends on campouts with the WHOLE family, not just boys, or just girls of a particular age. The mission at Families in Nature is to connect children and their families to nature and to each other through time spent learning, playing, and volunteering outdoors. The group became an official nonprofit organization in 2014. Over just the last few years, it has grown from one Central Austin chapter to nearly 20 Austin-area communities that regularly go on outings and host monthly STEAM activities ranging from building “toad abodes,” to squid dissections, to creek cleanups, to caving, to survival overnights for the pre-teens and teens.
Families in Nature has evolved over the past decade from an informal science and nature education program to an internationally recognized nonprofit organization providing nature experiences and leadership skills. This year they have formalized their curriculum into the Ecologist School Program, so they can spread the love of nature to even more youth and families.
The Ecologist School is a comprehensive program with over 1000 hands-on lessons in nature designed to teach STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), outdoor skills, volunteerism and leadership within 16 branches of science relevant to ecology. The program culminates in the design and completion of an impactful, ecologically-focused final project through which participants can become Certified Junior Ecologists (youth) or Citizen Ecologists (adults).
Families in Nature is a small nonprofit already having global impact. Please contact Families in Nature if you would like to join a local nature community, volunteer to lead a new group, participate in the Ecologist School Program, or make a donation to empower even more youth and families, including those with limited resources, to develop a deep knowledge of and lasting relationship with the natural world.
More ways to get connected with Families in Nature