Round the clock adventure makes kids city-smart while remote canyon promotes nature awareness
Los Angeles — The walls of Sara Lustbader's office are plastered with poems, thank-you letters, cards, and wildly colored poster-size drawings sent to her and other nature guides by children who have visited the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom (WODOC).
One reads, ''I loved holding the little tadpole. Maybe some day I'll see him when he's grown up and singing in a tree.''
Another: ''I liked seeing the coyote's foot tracks at the pond and learning about the Indians and how they used plants for food and clothes and everything else. I'd like to work with you at WODOC.'
Ms. Lustbader looks around the walls admiringly and notes, ''The guides, of course, thrive on this rewarding response. It's immensely gratifying and makes all the time and effort they put into their jobs - more than worthwhile - even inspiring.''
Through nature hikes with trained volunteer guides, the year-old WODOC helps schoolchildren understand the natural environment. It was named for the late United States Supreme Court Justice and dedicated naturalist-environmentalist and is funded by grants and private donations.
WODOC's activities take place in Franklin Canyon, a pocket wilderness surrounding a reservoir within the Santa Mountains National Recreation Area between Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley. A cooperative project with the Department of Water and Power provides access to the reservoir site for WODOC's programs.
Rich in human history, Franklin Canyon has been enjoyed for thousands of years by many peoples: Gabrielino Indians, Spanish padres, gold seekers, farmers , and ranchers.
The canyon contains a variety of hiking trails with a wide diversity of terrain: hillside chaparral, woodlands, streams, andponds - and an abundant wildlife population.
On these trails children are taught to sharpen their senses and observe the life forms around them. They also search with great zest for the tracks and habitats of animals while learning the interrelationship and importance of all living things to one another - including man.
Many of the animals in the hot, dry chaparral are nocturnal - or artfully hiding from visitors. Hence, the glimpse of a fawn nibbling a low branch, a wild rabbit with its offspring hiding in a thicket, and the lightening-like appearance and disappearance of the ubiquitous blue-belly lizards are heady bonuses to young explorers.
All Los Angeles County Schools from grade one upward are eligible for these free WODOC programs. Thus far, the majority of the students have been from the elementary grades and inner city schools. Private schools, however, are also welcome, as are adults and family groups.
Scheduled classes from the Los Angeles School District - usually 45 to 60 pupils - are transported by a city school bus to WODOC. To personalize the experience, classes are divided into small groups for the guided hike.
Program appointments are scheduled one to three months in advance with each program adapted to the age level and need of the group.
Ms. Lustbader, WODOC's program coordinator, head docent (guide), and only paid employee, is a botanist with a master's degree in environmental education. Her experience in this field includes over five years at Meadowbrook Nature Center in Montgomery Country, Md.
She explains, ''I feel it's immensely important for the students to be prepared in some measure before they come to us for these field trips. So many of them are unfamiliar with the natural world. For some, it's their first contact.
''That's why we send preparatory material well in advance to the teachers. In this way teachers can introduce in the classroom the new terms, concepts, and activities which the students will explore with us on their visit.
''For example, a reservoir is an abstract idea as described in a classroom or textbook. But when they see this one in the canyon, (a particularly beautiful example) reflecting like a giant mirror the surrounding mountains and sky - and understand that perhaps this very water will eventually flow into their homes to drink and bathe in - a link to themselves has been established.
''A reservoir is no longer an abstract idea - an impersonal, isolated fact - but an established relationship. And from there it's a simple step for them to understand the importance of protecting the water supply everywhere against pollution of any kind.
''Perhaps this one insight might be the first seed in awakening an ecological conscience - and involvement - later on. We never know but always hope.''
After the field trip, post-trip educational material is sent to the teacher so that the experience and activities can continue in the classroom.
Since its inception WODOC has piled up an enviable record of successful activity in fulfilling a community need. During its first year it has trained 41 docents who conducted the teaching tours for 4,515 participants. Because of time limitations and an insufficient number of docents, it regretfully had to turn down over 2,000 additional requests.
WODOC is woefully in need of more volunteers, some to guide nature tours, others to act as 'service docents'' to supply visitor information and other benefits in WODOC's ranch house office. WODOC's address is PO Box 2488. Beverly Hills, Calif. 902l3.
Aside from its environmental tours, WODOC offers a training program for its own docents. The course, given by specialists in nature study and ecology, also includes techniques for leading creative tours.
Training, however, doesn't finish with graduation, even though the student docents are then qualified to lead tours. Periodic workshops and seminars are vital, enriching parts of a continuing training process.
Docents come from a diversity of backgrounds: parents, teachers, community activists, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and senior adults.
Another WODOC activity offers workshops periodically for classroom teachers. These suggest activities, techniques, and strategies for incorporating ecological education into the urban classroom.