When adversity struck in the places they once called home, members of the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center education department wanted to figure out what they could do to help.
In late August, Hurricane Harvey became the first major hurricane to strike South Texas since Hurricane Celia in 1970. For Recycling and Waste Conversion Coordinator Caitlin Pyle, Camp Manager Maddy Herron and Programs Coordinator Cassidy McDonald, the natural disaster really hit home with them.
“Cassidy, Maddy and I all have ties to the Gulf Coast, and we had this CFT Grant that enabled us to go visit schools at no charge,” said Pyle, who is a native of Port Aransas. “We were thinking about how hard it would be if we were still students in those coastal cities, as well as how nice it would be if people visited us to share something and tried to brighten our day. As Fossil Rim education staff, what could we do?”
They decided to take “Rim on the Road” to a new level with an outreach trip that would cover eight schools in three days in the towns of East Bernard, Seabrook, League City, Sugarland, Port Aransas and Ingleside. James Morgan, assistant director of education, explained more about the CFT Grant – the gift that seemed to keep on giving.
“The CFT Grant for Fossil Rim came from the Communities Foundation of Texas in the amount of $20,000, which we spent to provide outreach to schools free of charge that might not be able to visit Fossil Rim,” Morgan said. “From Plano to Gustine, the entire education department (which also includes Director of Education Tessa Chenoa Ownbey, Homeschool Coordinator Mark Phillips and Volunteer Coordinator Andrew Bullard) visited 27 area schools. We shared Fossil Rim’s mission of sustainability, conservation and biodiversity with thousands of students and their teachers. We answered questions, showed biofacts – anything we could do to bring Fossil Rim to them.”
The hurricane was particularly tough on Pyle, considering Port Aransas sustained major damage.
“Nobody could get to Port Aransas, which is on Mustang Island, for several days after Hurricane Harvey hit,” she said. “My family evacuated safely with their pets, but I was up here in North Central Texas unable to do anything. For several days, we didn’t know if my parents still had their house or small business.”
The ladies set off for their outreach tour in early December.
“It was so hard to see all of the Port Aransas schools in portable buildings, but I’m so glad they at least have those,” Pyle said. “The elementary gym is still okay, and when I walked in my face lit up – I saw my spot from second grade. It made me emotional to think of how all these kids have their own spots.
“The teachers at the elementary school let the students know I was an alumnus, and if my visit helped encourage any of them to keep working hard, that alone made it a great experience for me. I was fortunate to see some of my former teachers during our visit.”
Pyle was impressed with how the students had adapted to their predicament.
“One of the programs we did is called ‘Doing the Rot Thing,’ which is about composting, and we also talked about landfills and recycling,” she said. “I was asking what they think is found in landfills, and they started naming off parts of their homes like furniture and roofing – not a normal answer to that question.”
Upon returning to Fossil Rim, Pyle was pleased the trio had made the effort.
“I think it was a worthwhile trip for us, and the students gained a better understanding of their natural environment and how animals can be affected by an event like a hurricane, just as humans are,” she said.
Herron has lived on the Gulf Coast twice – in League City as a child and then off-and-on since college to visit her parents in Corpus Christi. While both locations took hits from the hurricane, her family was fortunately okay.
“As we were approaching my former schools, I was suddenly nervous, but it was so great to go back,” Herron said. “The teachers were so welcoming, and they had students waiting to greet us. I saw some teachers who made a huge impact on me growing up, so to be able to thank them for helping me reach this point was really special.”
The educators presented their “Brink of Extinct” program that highlighted Fossil Rim species like rhinos and cheetahs, but a particular bird was their primary focus on the trip.
“We got to share quite a few of our programs with the schools,” Herron said. “One of our favorites is ‘The Lorax,’ which encompasses a lot of Fossil Rim’s mission. We talk about our conservation efforts, what animals need in the environment and how they interact with it. We wrap up talking about an endangered species, usually the Attwater’s prairie chicken, and how Fossil Rim is breeding these animals with the goal often being to return them to the wild.
“It helps kids understand that Fossil Rim is working to make a difference and shows them a light at the end of the tunnel. There are things they can do now, and then continue down that path as an adult. Emphasizing that concept of trying to do their part is a goal of most of our programs, especially the ones we presented on our trip.”
Herron explained the additional challenge of educating away from the friendly confines of Fossil Rim’s 1,800 acres.
“Doing any program on the road has some challenges,” she said. “Logistically, we have to make sure we bring all the stuff we need, but I also think it creates a challenge in the way we teach. A lot of times when we are here at Fossil Rim, we rely on our environment and the animals to create a lot of the intrigue for the kids. Without that, we have to figure out creative ways to reach the students and engage them in conversation without having a giraffe in the background.”
McDonald is a native of Wharton, which is southwest of Houston. They visited a school where her mother teaches in East Bernard and a second school in the town, as well as a school where her friend teaches in Sugarland.
“The school in East Bernard where my mom teaches is very close to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, but her students had not heard of these birds,” McDonald said. “That is unfortunate, but we were really excited to teach them. My mother is the theater teacher, so it was fun to do a play like ‘The Lorax’ for her and the students.”
McDonald observed how students reacted to her coworkers at their old stomping grounds.
“It was really awesome for me to see Maddy and Caitlin at their former schools to see how much the teachers appreciated them and how much the students looked up to them, because they’d been students there before,” she said. “It was very inspiring for those kids.”
When these ladies do outreach closer to Fossil Rim, many students already know the wildlife center to some degree. This was not the case, however, on this trip.
“It was a really different experience than the outreach efforts we’ve done in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” McDonald said. “Most of the kids hadn’t heard of Fossil Rim, so we tried to explain that we were a zoo, but a different kind of zoo – first and foremost a conservation center. As representatives of Fossil Rim, we had to bring our enthusiasm about this place to the children.”
Looking back on the trip, McDonald realized it was quite the undertaking.
“We were more tired from the trip than I expected,” she said. “It was hard doing outreach at eight schools in three days with all that driving, but it was all so worth it. At the end, it actually snowed in Corpus Christi and we got to build a snowman together.”
Refreshed and recharged, the trio is ready to hit the road once again.
“I would encourage teachers or administrators to give us a call about outreach at 254.897.2960 and ask for the education department, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org,” McDonald said. “With the CFT Grant, we have done so much more outreach than ever before, but we are always ready for more to take our programs to the next level as we share the mission of Fossil Rim.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate