I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, renowned the world over as the technological innovation hub that brought the world the personal computer and household names such as Apple, Facebook, and Google. In this high tech Mecca, where we connect by text, tweet, pin and post, I have found that it is far too easy to lose our most basic connection–our connection to the natural world around us.

So you might be surprised to learn that between the buildings of glass and steel, there is an amazing natural habitat called the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat that provides a wonderful opportunity for people to reconnect with nature. And I believe this personal connection to nature is THE essential prerequisite to drive global sustainability.

My story begins here, in this beautiful wide expanse of salt marsh stretching as far as my binoculars can see, between multi-colored ponds sporting strange hues of deep red, emerald green, dull yellow, and among hundreds of huge white pelicans majestically swooping over the glassy water. My story is here: in the homes of two endangered species, the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse and the CA Ridgeway’s Rail, that live nowhere else in the world.

In fact, local environmental treasures such as these exist all over our nation, each unique in their specific mission to care for critical habitat, ranging from marshes, to forests, streams, to grasslands and deserts, and even islands. This is our National Wildlife Refuge System, 560 refuges strong, 150 million acres large, and it is our responsibility to care for this land protected by the generations before us so that we can continue to keep these places wild for generations to come. This responsibility begins with educating our youngest generation, connecting urban youth to nature.

I created the Junior Refuge Ranger program to give back to youth ages 7-12. Through hands-on activities, hikes, and lab experiments, the program educates kids about the critical role of the refuge system, instills environmental stewardship, and teaches them how they can effect change. Because teaching today’s youth to make taking care of nature, feel like second nature, secures a more sustainable future for generations to come.

The inspiration for the Junior Refuge Ranger Program came from one of those seemingly small interactions that cascades into something larger. I’m sure all of you can recall a similar moment in your life just like this… when an unexpected and delightful experience altered your course.

For me, those moments occur when I witness the transformation in the participants of the program, when I see the sparks of excitement in their eyes, eager to experience the interrelationship between nature, humanity, and the much larger environment. At a Junior Refuge Ranger Program for the Boys and Girls Club this past summer, a little girl initially would not speak or participate, and hid behind her caregiver. Yet at the conclusion of the program, she ran up to me enthusiastically. “I saw one of these outside!” she exclaimed, as she thrust a stuffed bunny in my face. She had drawn a personal connection to what she was seeing outside. Creating and fostering experiences like this is what the Junior Refuge Ranger Program is all about.
Since its inception, the Junior Refuge Ranger program has educated and inspired a diverse audience: Scout Troops, school groups, summer programs, the families who come to the weekend programs. It has been used in equally diverse settings: a 7-week summer program, a standalone weekend program, a program at large public events. It also directly reaches schools: last November, the Junior Refuge Ranger was the theme of Science Night for the local elementary school. The program has grown and expanded in the past year. Plans are underway to start Jr. Refuge Ranger programs at other refuges in California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and it is my dream and goal that ultimately each and every one of the 560 refuges across the United States will have a Junior Refuge Ranger Program.

There is something powerful and positive that we can all do to reconnect with nature and to build enduring global sustainability in current and future generations. It is simply this: Make the next worm, bug, mouse, or tweet you encounter not be from a computer or smartphone, but from something that you and your family personally touch, hear, see and, most of all, enjoy in nature.

Then share your experience with others: educate and empower those around you. There are so many ways that we can contribute to a more sustainable society. It starts with you. It is this positive, willful, and creative energy to carve our own paths, to tell our stories, and to educate others that makes us the voice of nature. What will your story be?