Dinner, docent appreciation event held May 27 at Zaca Creek Ranch

By Serena Guentz

Contributing Writer

NatureTrack celebrated its 10th anniversary with a dinner and docent appreciation event at the Zaca Creek Ranch on Thursday, May 27.

Since Sue Eisaguirre started NatureTrack on Nov. 2, 2011, the foundation has been providing outdoor field trips for students in Santa Barbara County, giving them an opportunity to spend time in nature and learn outdoors.

In that first year, 600 students went on outdoor field trips with NatureTrack. Now the organization serves nearly 5,000 students each year, Eisaguirre said.

“The students get to connect with nature in a way books can’t do,” said Linda Corley, a retired teacher who is one of NatureTrack’s newest docents. “[NatureTrack’s volunteers are] a lot of good people doing a lot of good things for kids.”

Corley taught fifth grade and second grade for about 32 years before she recently retired. She would bring her students on fields trips with NatureTrack since the organization began and continued to return each year.

“I feel lucky that I get to do it,” Corley said.

In 2017, Eisaguirre launched the NatureTrack Film Festival to present nature films from around the world.

Because of COVID-19, the 2020 film festival was completely virtual, and this year’s festival will consist of a one-day “boutique” event in Los Olivos on Oct. 16, showing a selection of films from the last three festivals.

The normal three-day format is set to return in 2022, with both in-person and virtual components.

For 10 years, NatureTrack has been taking students on hikes and field trips to a variety of places around the county, such as the Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden, Midland School Trails, Sedgewick Reserve and much more.

“We like to say we have as much fun as the kids,” Eisaguirre said.

During the event, Eisaguirre announced NatureTrack’s “NewTracks” program, which will allow people in wheelchairs to independently participate in the field trips and hikes. She said this will be achieved with the use of Freedom Trax units, in which manual wheelchairs are locked into and turned into “battery-powered off-road vehicles.”

“This device will open up a whole new perspective,” Eisaguirre said.

NatureTrack currently has six Freedom Trax units and Eisaguirre said that they hope to obtain at least 10 units.

The celebration included music, wine and appetizers as volunteers and donors socialized, followed by a tri-tip and chicken dinner. A Gratitude Table was also set up with thank you letters from schoolchildren and teachers who had previously gone on field trips with NatureTrack.

Mary Jane West-Delgado, a docent who has been with NatureTrack since the beginning, said she frequently hears from children that the field trips were “the most fun they’ve ever had.”

Many of the volunteers also expressed how much they’ve enjoyed working with NatureTrack and leading field trips with students.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Mike Patarak, who has been a NatureTrack docent for four years. “Every hike is different; every kid is different.”

Patarak also said that, for many children, the field trips are the first time they have been on a hike.

Hayley Firestone, who owns the Zaca Creek Ranch with her husband, said she was happy to host this event at the ranch.

“We really like to support Santa Ynez Valley nonprofits,” Firestone said. “NatureTrack is really close to our hearts.”

During Thursday’s event, Eisaguirre thanked volunteers and donors as she presented five-year and 10-year pins to volunteers.

Eisaguirre also presented Sam Babcock as this year’s recipient of the Dan Conaway Docent of the Year Award. The award, named in honor of the late docent, is given to one docent each year for outstanding service.

Additionally, Eisaguirre announced Santa Ynez Valley High School senior Catalina Kett as the first recipient of the $5,000 NatureTrack Nancy Stearns Scholarship. 

The scholarship was started this year by Brett Stearns in honor of his late wife, Nancy, and will continue to be awarded each year.

Since launching, NatureTrack has served over 25,000 students and that number will only continue to grow.

After having to make adjustments to the programs due to COVID-19, Eisaguirre said that they are now back on the trails and offering outdoor field trips to students of all ages from kindergarten through 12th grade.