By Raiza Giorgi
Sue Eisaguirre remembers going for a hike with a group of students in the early days of NatureTrack, and telling the docent in front of her to take the fork to the left when the trail split off.
“The little boy next to me looked up and said ‘I don’t see a fork,’ and I laughed out loud because he was very concerned that seeing a fork was very important,” Eisaguirre laughed.
Eisaguirre said there have been too many amazing experiences through the 10 years but she is so happy to be celebrating this milestone with her volunteers and hopeful the next 10 will be just as memorable.
Her goal is still the same as it was 10 years ago, and that is to foster a lifelong fascination with nature through outdoor experiences. Eisaguirre’s dream began while working at UCSB’s Sedgwick Reserve and she wanted to reach kids of all backgrounds to get them outside and exploring the natural world.
“I don’t have a natural history background, but I absolutely believe that kids need to be outdoors exploring and learning about the world around them,” she said. “Not stuck to a television screen, and especially now during the pandemic when they are online a lot for distance learning.”
Eisaguirre’s little nonprofit started in February of 2011, getting volunteers and programs put together, and officially began Nov. 2 that year with a fundraising dinner. The very next day she had kids in groups and started taking them on adventures.
“I wanted this program to be an addition to the classroom, where teachers could incorporate the activities and experiences into their lesson plans. That’s exactly what we did,” Eisaguirre said.
That year, she said, they provided 600 students with a NatureTrack outdoor field trip. The next year the number of students grew to 1,600, then 2,000 and in 2019 they provided field trips for 4,000 students in Santa Barbara County.
“We accomplished this only because of our incredible volunteers and donors and all the great places who have let us host a field trip,” Eisaguirre said. “Midland School in particular has been amazing for letting us use their trails and property for the trips.”
NatureTrack is now offering a $5,000 scholarship in memory of the group’s longtime volunteer Nancy Stearns, who passed away last year.
“Nancy was the master gardener and always brought this vibrancy to NatureTrack that the kids just loved,” Eisaguirre said. “She will be dearly missed and her husband Brett kindly offered this scholarship in her name.”
Applications will be available in February to high school seniors in the Santa Ynez Valley. Visit naturetrack.org for details.
How COVID has affected NatureTrack
The start of 2020 looked very promising to Eisaguirre as the program already had trips planned for 5,000 students and was planning its largest film festival to date.
“When March hit, it was a scramble because it was literally the week before the film festival was supposed to start,” she said. “We had to quickly restructure to a virtual festival which actually worked out very well.”
The hikes were immediately put on pause, and Eisaguirre’s employee Jenny Morrell sprang into action and grabbed her GoPro camera and started taping the hikes so students would still be able to see outdoors even while being stuck at home.
“Our docents started putting packets together we started distributing to the classrooms so kids could explore their own yards and neighborhoods on their own and do fun activities that kept social distancing guidelines,” Eisaguirre said.
NatureTrack has virtual field trips and online resources to supplement students’ studies, encouraging them to get outdoors in their backyards or other safe locations. These videos have been screened more than 1,000 times, Eisaguirre noted.
The public can now access four virtual hikes on the NatureTrack website: Arroyo Burro Beach, Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden, Midland Trails and Nojoqui Falls. People can find 17 different videos at the various locations, with nearly 50 activities related to the virtual tour keeping students, families, and individuals busy for a while.
Eisaguirre added that she teamed up with the YMCA in Lompoc and the Lompoc school districts as they learned that some of the kids weren’t getting meals and Eisaguirre thought it would be a great supplement to also include their nature cards to get kids outside.
This amount of “screen time” and sedentary activity especially during the pandemic has led to increases in child obesity, inadequate physical activity, stress, sleep deprivation, and poor diet quality; in contrast, being outdoors in nature has proven to combat many of those ills, Eisaguirre said.
NatureTrack gave each of the kids in the families who were getting the meals a journal, and a new card every week with an activity to introduce them to nature.
“We call it Nutrition with a Side of Nature,” Eisaguirre said. “It was the Friday before the holidays, and we delivered 60 pints of milk to one family with six children to get them through the holiday vacation. At another home one little girl was so elated about our Nature Notes, she was jumping up and down with excitement.”
She explained their volunteers now deliver food Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The film festival was also huge deal to not only cancel at the last minute, but restructure for virtual in just a few months time, Eisaguirre said. It was a critical success with more than 4,500 showings of 78 films with local and global audiences. Financially, the festival income was hard hit but other ways to raise funds were sought. The Oak Group’s exhibition, “The Link Between Man and Nature,” identified NatureTrack as the beneficiary to receive a sizeable portion of the sale price.
“To get the Oak Group’s recognition was a validation of the work we do with K through 12 students,” said Eisaguirre. “By introducing them to nature now, we’re creating future stewards to preserve landscapes and special wildlife for the generations who follow us.”
The festival for 2021 will also be different, Eisaguirre explained.
“A selection of the awarded and best films from the past three years with some new films to keep the material fresh and relevant will become ‘NatureTrack Film Festival on Tour,’” Eisaguirre said.
The event is planned to go back to the three-day weekend format in 2022, but keep the virtual aspect to become an integral part of the festival from this point on, using the best of both worlds to create a new domain for NatureTrack.
If your school, group or organization would like to find out how to get the NTFF On Tour, please call (805) 886-2047 or e-mail: email@example.com.
Looking to the future
As NatureTrack figures out navigating COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, Eisaguirre said it has made the program’s organizers open their eyes to many new possibilities and ways of reaching more people. This year has also been spent creating “NewTracks,” a way for wheelchair-bound people to explore nature by attaching special tracks to become off-road capable.
“Our volunteer Steve Schultz has spearheaded this project to open the natural world more to wheelchair bound people and help them enjoy being outside even more,” Eisaguirre said. “I am so thrilled we have three units and have a grant in to buy three more.”
Eisaguirre also said she would love to see NatureTrack expand into more areas as two of the program’s college age volunteers recently went into the Peace Corps and took NatureTrack materials with them, introducing kids to journaling and making art from nature.
“One of our volunteers is in Malawi currently and took NatureTrack sticker books and the other took journals to Nicaragua,” Eisaguirre said. “I hope someday I see it in more international places.”
For more information on NatureTrack and to stay updated on their upcoming virtual events or in-person when allowed visit www.naturetrack.org.