Go out into the wetlands. Find a quiet, secluded area. Be very quiet. Be still. After about a minute of silence, you'll start to hear birds. You'll hear the wind in the trees. You'll hear the water trickling. You'll see nature coming back to life.
This is how Howard Page helped share nature with a group of youths from the Forest Heights Boys and Girls Club in North Gulfport, Mississippi. "The kids really were amazed. It was remarkable that it could be one of the first times where some of these kids took the time to be truly quiet---an observer in nature, and not just stumbling through it," he says.
The children meet up after school at a center that backs up to the Turkey Creek Watershed, a popular waterway for canoeing and fishing, where Howard helped organize a series of workshops with students ages 10-15. "The idea was to have a series of experiences where the kids, in a very hands-on fashion, learned about the wetlands, but also learned about ways to do science, to do research, to document things, record, and report things," he shares. "We wanted to take them into their backyards, the wetlands, and give them fun, interesting ways to embrace and own the wetlands."
A Gulfport native, Howard grew up hunting and fishing in the area, with a love of the local coastal wetlands. Now as a community organizer with the North Gulfport Community Land Trust and Sierra Club, he's working with partners like Public Lab and the Gulf Restoration Network to teach kids to explore the wetlands through activities like balloon mapping, water testing, trekking, and photography.
"Everything was designed to be aspirational," says Howard. "I wanted the kids to not just learn science and how to fly balloons, but teach them that they can be educators too---and teaching them the jobs they can get by learning biology and chemistry. And that when they read these books about nature, they can write the books and take the photographs. We didn't want them to just meet professionals but wanted to make sure they knew they could become those professionals, and teach them what it would take to do that."
As a preservationist, taking science out of the classroom and into the field is important to Howard. "As a young person grows up in this community and gains an understanding of the wetlands, the goal is that in a few years, they'll be great voices for protecting them," he says. And the area can use all the advocates it can get. Development in Gulfport has led to a loss of wetlands, meaning a loss of vital flood protection. Stormwater control often fails to work properly, resulting in sewer and septic systems spilling untreated waste into the streets. "If there's untreated water rising up around your house, it may be out there where kids are walking and playing." He adds, "And aside from the obvious health related issues, there are psychological effects of constantly wondering 'Is my house going to flood and am I safe?'"
Howard has been closely involved with recent success with community efforts to protect local wetlands. "Because of community engagement, we've been able to identify areas where sewer systems leak into the wetlands, leading to better management practices," he shares. "One day, we hope to get these areas into conservation."
For now, Howard is helping to create a new generation of conservationists. "I asked the kids to go home and research what things live in the wetlands," he retells. "They came back the next week with answers. We talked about birds and snakes and cypress trees. And even moose! But there's one thing you're forgetting, I told them. You are one of the creatures that live in the wetlands. They really got a kick out of that."