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A Trip to Remember

Education Program Manager for Keep Austin Beautiful

service learningMonica serves as Education Programs Manager for Keep Austin Beautiful where over the years she has been instrumental in developing and implementing a comprehensive youth environmental education program to serve schools, and after-school and informal youth groups. With over thirteen years experience in the areas of environmental education, community outreach and service to diverse populations Monica has grown the KAB programs to reach over 10,000 students annually. An avid gardener and a passion for the outdoors Monica has helped to build rooftop gardens in New York City, rain gardens in Houston Texas, and native and vegetable gardens that can be spotted at schools around Austin.

This May students from Keep Austin Beautiful’s Green Teens afterschool environmental clubs at Travis, LBJ, and Akins High Schools met up for two nights and three days of camping. As we suspected the trip was filled with exploring, learning, service, and adventure. What we hadn’t bargained for was the sheer excitement of being a part of so many first time experiences from the first time a student travelled outside of Austin to the first time a high school student visited the beach or camped in a tent to the first time kayaking or making a friend outside of their own school. The experience for educators and youth alike was phenomenal. Join us on our adventure.
Here We Go!
40 miles outside of Austin and 9 months later the effects of the Bastrop wildfires could still be seen as we looked out the window. The landscape triggered a sense of pride as students remembered creating seedballs to reseed burned areas. The sighting was the first of many opportunities the trip would provide to reflect on what we had learned throughout the year. 10 miles later we crossed the Colorado River. This was the third of 6 times we would cross the river as we followed its path southeast to where it empties into Matagorda Bay. Providing drinking water, hydroelectricity, and a haven for wildlife, river crossings were great moments for students to step back and see how choices made in our Austin watersheds affect the environment hundreds of miles away. 
While the exciting moment came when we pulled up to the beach, our trip down to Matagorda Bay had already been eventful before even leaving Austin. Tents and sleeping pads were picked up from REI on Tuesday for the students to practice setting up camp. The office filled with sleeping bags that would add comfort to the trip from Austin Youth River Watch, life jackets from Austin Watershed Protection Department to keep us safe from the strong riptide, and head lamps from Whole Earth Provisions which would prove to be the life of a light show party each night. It took a game of tetris to load up the supplies, student bags, and all the students in two vans but at last we settled into the vans for a yummy and healthy sandwich and salad dinner from Noodles and Company. It was just what we needed to get us started on our healthy eating weekend and keep us energized for the much awaited trip.
service learningThe Arrival
After three hours of driving and a beautiful sunset to our west, the vans pulled up to the beach ready to dump 18 teens onto the sand. As we drove over the bridge away from the mainland, students observed the mouth of the river where it empties in the Bay, correctly identified the delta and checked out the barrier island we’d be sleeping on.
“Look, there are seashells!” Luis, a freshman from Travis High School, exclaimed when he first walked from the van down to the sandy beach. Having never been to the beach before, Luis was in awe of the seashells scattered everywhere.
Taking advantage of the dwindling natural light, students put their practice to the test by setting up tents. Remembering the color coded poles, they quickly threw up the tents while the educators ran around making sure everyone had the proper stakes, sleeping bags, tarps and more. Proud of their wilderness skills, Ms. Emily was shooed away by the LBJ girls who insisted, “We know how to do this.” Indeed they did, and a shout out to Fernando who helped three other groups setup their tents.


After the trip, a few students shared that the Friday night campfire with storytelling, s’mores munching, meeting new friends, and chasing crabs had been the most enjoyable experience. Equipped with new headlamps generously donated by Whole Earth Provisions the teens were able to hunt for crabs and host light show dance parties both nights. After a few minutes of blinding one another, we all turned on the red light setting since wildlife can’t see it and it helped us appreciate just how bright the moon and stars were.
Wake Up and Hear and Smell the Ocean!
Rising slowly and enjoying the sounds of waves and warm breezes, students stumbled out of their tents one by one to greet the day. Like music to an environmental educators ears, Akins senior Andre Samia woke up to share, “I slept really well for never having been in a tent. It was so relaxing to hear the waves.” The statement set the tone for the morning as students strolled out of their tents one by one with groggy smiles.
Knowing the urgency of hungry teenagers, we quickly got to work preparing breakfast tacos chopping vegetables, mixing eggs, and cooking sausage with LBJ students Jalin and Jessica. In between tacos, teens herded confused crabs onto their plates to take a closer look at who had dug holes next to their tents during the night.
Keeping Austin to the Beach Clean
To get a better understanding of just how much plastic is floating around in our environment, all you have to do is walk along the beach. Grabbing trash and recycling bags, the teens set out for our smelliest cleanup of the year – digging through fresh seaweed rolled in from the ocean to remove almost every kind of plastic container imaginable. Fishing equipment, lotion bottles, flip flops were among the expected litter items at the beach but as the campers learned there was much more to the picture. Crates, glass, packaging (land examples) told us that most of this litter is swept out to the bay after traveling down the Colorado River. This means trash collected during the cleanup could have arrived from Austin! While we collected, we started noticing strange diamond shape chunks out of the plastics. Unfortunately, these were all turtle bite marks from trying to eat the trash mistaken as food. It was a sobering example of what can happen when we don’t keep our land clean and waste in the trash. On a lighter note, we discovered some crazy sea creatures, burned some calories, and had a lively show and tell from our cleanup.
service learningPaddling our Way
Many of the teens had kayaked Lady Bird Lake before, but an afternoon coasting through the salty marshlands was quite another adventure. Led by the LCRA Matagorda Bay Nature Park, we took a 2 hour excursion in shallow wetlands. Not only do these marshlands shelter the inlands from hurricanes and slow flooding, but it serves as a nursery to young birds and fish. Jumping fish flew past our kayaks while catching bugs and brown pelicans waded near the coast. Some of our teens, nervous to sit in such a small boat, did a wonderful job overcoming their fears of the water while learning how to steer and balance themselves. Stopping for a lesson on the wetlands, we also sampled pickle grass which Germans grow and use as an ice cream topper. Trips like these are not only relaxing and educational, but tie us closer to the important habitats we try to protect.
Resting in the shade we regrouped at the park pavilion to identify the different types of seashells found on the beach and some of the critters that live in them. Varying colors from pink to gray and bright orange could be spotted in common Atlantic clams and scallops. Sundials, one of the most unique types of shells, were a favorite. Specimens of Lightning Whelk shells, the Texas state seashell proved to be the most fascinating. Measuring up to 14 inches in length and having a unique spiral opening to the left, this shell is a prized find. Noticing the distinctive spiral opening to the left instead of the right the Lightning Whelk shells were differentiated from the Knobbed Whelk shell.
After identifying shells from a collection, the students set out to find their own specimens. At first glance the students were bored with the seemingly common clam shells, but with some encouragement and more digging around oyster shells, cockle shells, sundials, a large scallop, a bonnet shell, and a large piece of a Lightning Whelk were surfaced. Jackie, a senior from Akins High School unveiled a piece of sea glass which is a collector item due to its striking beauty created when glass is tumbled in the waves.
Free Time for Free Play
Free time cannot be underestimated! Before jumping waves we had a quick refresher on rip tides and swimming safety. With unusually warm water temperatures in the Gulf, the seaweed was blooming early and blanketed the beach. The Green Teens were not deterred and happily waded through the mess. At one point, they even had a sea weed fight throwing clumps of it back and forth. After wading and jumping the waves, the students grouped at the water’s edge, building sand castles in the water and catching all the shrimp swimming in the seaweed. They even found some live clams. Filling our hands with sand we'd watch as the crabs would stick out their little foot and burrow into the sand. Fernando, a senior from Travis High School (see Fernando playing in the sand above) who had never been to the beach, shared how he loved swimming in the ocean so much and he could not wait to come again.
Dinner is a Wrap
A day paddling and playing in the sun produced some big appetites. Saturday night’s dinner of foil packs combined healthy eating with camping techniques. Foil in hand students built their own dinner with heaps of tilapia, sausage, freshly chopped veggies, and seasonings except salt, which was missing in action until 20 minutes before heading home on Sunday. Wrapped in foil the packs were placed over the coals. Within 15 minutes, the students were enjoying their personally customized meal in a foil pouch. The dinner was a big hit with everyone, especially the crew on dishes! Several students remarked that this was the healthiest they had ever eaten and that they surprisingly liked it!
Leave the Beach, Leave No Trace, and Take Lots of Memories
service learningWith showers optional and sand everywhere, we enjoyed a quick breakfast of bagels, fruit, and cereal before packing. With such a large group and ourGreen Teens namesake on the line learning to Leave No Trace was more important than ever. Habits such as combing the sand for litter, removing allwaste and recyclables, and burying the fire pit all helped to leave the beach even cleaner than when we found it.
Miraculously everything fit back into the vans. While driving out, students realized they knew much more about the areathan when we drove in on Friday. Stopping for lunch along the way, educators noticed students sitting with new friends from different schools. A few hours after arriving home Emily hears a bing and the following text appears, “Hi Emily, thank you for letting me experience that camping we did at the beach. It was wonderful. I really think it was my most treasured moment of my senior year. Thanks to Alecia and Monica too for driving us back and forth. And the food was delicious.” – Andre Samia, senior at Akins High School who along with four others skipped his high school prom to take this year’s Green Teens camping trip.

More About the Author:
Monica possesses much urban school experience in the areas of environmental education, after-school, community outreach and service to diverse populations. She earlier worked in New York City with the Horticultural Society of New York as Greenways Program Coordinator for their school and library garden projects. While at the Horticultural Society she collaborated with schools to install schoolyard habitats, roof-top gardens, and indoor grow labs and developed hands-on activities that transformed these spaces into teaching venues to connect inner city youth with the natural world. Following her stay in New York she returned to Texas to  work at the Council for Environmental Education as Water Education Programs’ Coordinator to refine their water education programming and manage program growth into new cities.
As the Education Program Manager for Keep Austin Beautiful Monica has worked to develop a comprehensive education program that targets different socio economic groups, outreaches to a variety of ages, and builds partnerships with formal and informal education groups. Key enhancements to the KAB education programs now include Green Teens, an after-school environmental education initiative; Patch Pals, various resources that are provided to inspire and assist youth groups in active stewardship; and Clean Creek Campus, a school-based education initiative that engages youth in learning about their environment and completing service-learning projects.

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