Greenhouse program teaches inner-city students about nature

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

BALDWIN HILLS — After they complete their required reading, writing and arithmetic, a group of high school students, interested in a more personal connection with nature, make their way to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook to take part in the Los Angeles Audubon’s Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program.

Now in its 12th year, the greenhouse program is a competitive after-school and weekend program for local high school students that incorporates environmental science and research, community leadership, hands-on habitat restoration, and art to address local environmental issues.

Stacey Vigallon, one of the founders of the program along with Margot Griswold, is L.A. Audubon’s director of environment education and project biologist.

She not only believes that nature should be accessible to all urban residents, but she also believes the program is beneficial to the students who participate. Since it began, the program has continued to grow in popularity.

In the first year, there were only 12 students. Today, Vigallon said more than 50 students apply each school year.

“The students have to apply and go through an interview to become interns,” she said. “The students get paid. For most of them, this is the first time they are applying for a job.

“They get basic adult, world professional skills right out of the gate. Someone is paying them to do something. They also get support in the college application process, as well as alternatives to college,” she added.

Vigallon said the program interns collectively clock hundreds of hours in collecting and analyzing data, research, crafting a proposal, designing a research poster, and presenting their work to the public. Each year, the organization publishes the students’ research to share the knowledge gained with a broader audience and to acknowledge the interns’ hard work and commitment.

While the students benefit from the program, Vigallon said, so, too, does the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

“The community certainly benefits,” Vigallon said. “Directly, the park itself has benefitted since 2008. Students are restoring the park, and fixing trails. The work is applicable to park management. An indirect benefit is how, by having students present, the program demonstrates that young people really care about the city and their community.”

Vigallon said, “There are studies that demonstrate how being outdoors is good for physical and mental health.”

“You need folks that are knowledgeable about what it means to live in the city,” she said. “Our students blow the stereotypes out of the water that says people in the city don’t care about the environment. These students clearly do.”

Vigallon chose the Baldwin Hills location because “it’s centrally situated.”

“Also because there are a number of schools around the area,” she said. “It’s a walkable distance and is available through trains. It has remnants of original native habitat. It’s great because the site is not completely developed.”

Vigallon, 43, said the Scenic Overlook has coastal sage scrub that is unique to California and plants and animals that are specific to that area.

“California is diverse culturally and ecologically,” she said. “The Scenic Overlook has one of the best views in the city. You can see the whole basin. You can see mountains with snow. You can see downtown. At the top, you see the whole watershed. It’s an ideal place for the students. It’s a beautiful site for them to develop a sense of place and stewardship.”

As of March, due to COVID-19, the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program had to stop its in-person meetings. In June, the program transitioned to a virtual setting.

“We still had outstanding attendance,” Vigallon said. “Not a lot of drop off. For this school year, we will continue to be online.”

Before COVID-19, depending on their level in the program, students met several days a week and on some weekends.

“Restoration leaders meet once a week,” Vigallon. “They are usually involved in habitat restoration activities. Interns meet two days a week and do an independent project for which they get a stipend, which is contingent on their attendance.”

Several schools in the area participate in the program.

“The first half of the program was exclusively Dorsey High,” Vigallon said. “We then branched out, and Culver City became involved as did Hamilton High School, LACES, and a few charter schools. Primarily, though, it’s Dorsey and Culver City High School.”

Natan Euol, 18, joined the program during his junior year at Culver City High School. His research project was titled, “Documenting Mammal Activity at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park.”

“I thought it was a good opportunity to take advantage of a paid internship,” said Euol, who as an alumnus of the program continues to mentor students in the program when he gets the chance. “I come back because I like working with kids. I have never seen anything like this for high school students. It’s a unique experience. I was interested in environmental science, not for a career, just for me.”

Euol, who is currently studying mathematics at Santa Monica College, said he would advise all students to participate in the program.

“You’ll go into it for one reason, but you get so much out of it,” he said. “You learn so much. You will find out what your passion is. I wanted to do computer science, now I want to teach high school math. This program gets you ready for whatever you want to do.”

Cobar, 28, started off as an 11th-grade student in the program. She said after receiving an internship at Audubon, she “wanted to work on the environment as a career.”

Her experience in the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program led to her current position as a community program manager at the Los Angeles Audubon Society. She also taught a conservation class for a year at West Los Angeles College. She said her time with the program was invaluable.

“You make connections with other students from other schools and you make connections with nature,” said Cobar who attended Dorsey High School and went on to study environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s nice to be outside in the park. It helps you mentally and physically. As an intern, you can do a research program and do hands-on restoration work.”

Cobar said because she lives in an urban city, she was interested in keeping a connection with nature and sharing that passion with anyone who would listen.

“We don’t have that much green space,” Cobar said. “We have a lot of nature around us. Both then and now, I want to keep the connection open. It’s always great to discover something about nature. There should be more programs like this throughout L.A. We can’t do the whole city. Ours doesn’t have to be the only awesome program in the city.”

While Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is the program’s home base, the program is also conducted in Kenneth Hahn Park, Dockweiler Beach, and Venice Beach.

The greenhouse program is managed and funded by Los Angeles Audubon, with additional funding from Baldwin Hills Conservancy, the TogetherGreen Program, Sony and Southern California Edison.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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