Princeton, N.J.—Growing up in the Trenton area, Elizet Moralez-Perez was not especially connected to nature. “I never took the time to explore the outdoors,” she recounts. “I thought city life could only offer city things. How much I was missing out on—trails, parks and so much more.”
All that changed when she served as a Delaware River Watershed Fellow at the Tulpehaking Nature Center of the Abbott Marshlands this summer. She will continue in this role through the coming fall.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” says Moralez-Perez. “It taught me how to connect with my community, and to inspire and guide them to fall in love with, care for and utilize nature and nature centers created for us.”
“We are excited that Elizet is bilingual,” says Tulpehaking Nature Center Director Kelly Rypkema. “A large proportion of the community surrounding the nature center is Spanish speaking, and Elizet can reach out to them. As a greeter to the nature center, she could see that, for example, one mom and her two kids were not understanding English so she switched to Spanish. The mom’s face lit up—she was able to have the conversation, and we were able to make that important connection.”
D&R Greenway and the Tulpehaking Nature Center are working together on the William Penn Foundation’s Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE) of the Delaware River. This network of 23 environmental education centers from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey is aimed at increasing awareness of the importance of the Delaware River watershed, a 13,500 square mile system that provides drinking water for 15 million people. It includes public opportunities to explore, enjoy and engage in activities on their local waterways with the ultimate goal of advancing protection of this critical resource.
The 23 centers that form the Alliance are all physically connected by the Circuit Trails, the Greater Philadelphia region’s 750-mile multi-use trail network, and trails that connect throughout the entire watershed. Using their centers and nearby trails as assets, the Alliance will create and collectively deliver fun, engaging programs to this untapped audience of thousands of visitors on the Delaware River and its tributaries.
The Delaware River Watershed Fellowship is a paid, 12-week internship at one of the 23 environmental centers, aimed at engaging young people in the surrounding communities to become ambassadors for the Delaware River. The fellows assist in environmental programming, recreation activities on the trail and waterways, habitat enhancement projects and community outreach and engagement. The program is intended for youth ages 18-24.
“The Environmental Fellowship Program is a promising way to engage young adults, many without any previous environmental training or education, in conservation efforts,” says D&R Greenway President & CEO Linda Mead. “To ensure clean water for the future, it’s important for conservationists to mobilize the next generation. The summer fellowship program leverages the potential for these young people to become ambassadors for clean water and learn how they can involve local communities in contributing to the health of the watershed.”
Fellows gain an understanding of what it takes to develop and run an environmental education program, from planning to marketing. Regular activities at Tulpehaking Nature Center include building relationships with community groups, and leading hands-on programs about archaeology, fishing, wildlife and other topics appropriate to the Abbott Marshlands. While the focus for the position is on environmental education, the Fellow also participates in animal care, trail maintenance and conservation projects such as monitoring water quality and aquatic insect populations in the marsh. A full introduction to the plants, wildlife, archaeology and Native American history of the Abbott Marshlands is provided.
Part of Moralez-Perez’s training included a three-day “boot camp” in the Poconos. “The first day was the scariest—it was my first time going somewhere alone,” she recounts. “Learning that I wasn’t the only fellow feeling that way eased my nerves. We connected so much in only three days, it was almost impossible to say goodbye. I learned how important and meaningful this program is, and how honored I am to be a part of it.”
“Elizet goes out with our naturalist staff and helps interpret the outdoors with kids who are visiting,” says Rypkema. “She is also translating a self-guided brochure, so anyone coming in future will have the brochure in Spanish.”
Moralez-Perez coordinated a public picnic. “This came out of a focus group we did with AWE, and one of comments was: invite people to have a picnic,” says Rypkema. “Families bring their own picnic, and it’s a nice relaxing time on the back lawn where families get to know the nature center and learn the importance of water. Elizet prepared the educational activities and guided nature trail for families and wrote the press release she posted to online community calendars. She designed a flyer for the event and sent it to Trenton community contacts.”
In addition, “Elizet has been reaching out to larger local churches to tell them about the importance of water and invite them to the picnic day,” continues Rypkema. “It’s been neat to observe her. She gets excited about learning and accomplishing new things. A lot of what she’s done has been new, but she’s taken it all in stride.”
And as Moralez-Perez grows, so does Rypkema. “It’s rewarding to see someone who came in with an interest grow in her knowledge and excitement. It makes me take stock and realize the background of knowledge I draw upon to do my job without thinking about it, trying to bring her up to speed so she feels comfortable. My relationship with her will help me make better connections in the future.”
Moralez-Perez will continue her involvement after the fellowship ends. On October 7, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Tulpehaking Nature Center will host NatureCon. Rypkema describes it as a nature convention geared toward families and young kids. “It’s like Comicon, but with nature superheroes: what is your superpower when it comes to protecting the earth? One of the events we’re doing came up in a discussion with Elizet. There’s a storm culvert that empties into the Abbott Marshlands. It’s a concrete wall, and Elizet’s idea was to get a local artist to turn it into educational street art about the importance of water. We will have an artist sketch out a mural and the public can come and paint part of it, having a hand in creating a beautiful nature mural. Elizet wants to stay on as volunteer and remain active.”
“After the fellowship, I plan to continue my education,” says Moralez-Perez. “At the beginning of the program I was unsure of what direction I wanted to take in life. Working alongside with Kelly gave me a better understanding, not only in what I want to do but also in how to accomplish my goals. My journey doesn’t end after the fellowship. I will continue inspiring others that might be in the same place as I was in the start of the program. For that I am most thankful.”