Volunteer Stories – Emily Clark

How does volunteering for WEN connect with your interests?

“It really opened my eyes to water issues in the West. While I was working with WEN, I also worked for an organization here on campus, and then the following year went back to school and took an environmental policy class, and I saw a huge disconnect between policy and science. I felt a need to get back into the science aspect of things. My undergrad degree is in Psychology, which people refer to as a soft science. Working for WEN built my confidence so I could jump back into these Physics and Calculus classes. I took a Chemistry class in college and I was a raft guide, so I knew about stream morphology, but I learned a lot from WEN and it inspired me to go back to school and learn more.”

What have you learned from interacting with students?

“Being in a teaching role, you have to learn how to adapt materials to reach your audience. We worked with people from preschool to high school. It’s a really good experience and opened my eyes to water issues in Montana. I’m a teaching assistant for the Watershed Hydrology class here (UM). It’s my third semester and I’m going to be doing it again next semester. Traditionally, I’ve worked with younger students, so it’s interesting to work now with adults—young adults, but also nontraditional students—but some of the same skills apply as working with the younger kids. It’s been a good experience.

The part where they really get excited—especially the students who may not be excelling at math or really grasping what we’re doing in class—is we’ll often go out into the oval and do peer demonstrations with instruments and we’ll also take them on a field trip to Lubrecht and usually everyone really enjoys that. I think it’s the same principle as kids getting really excited so much more—it just resonates with people more when they actually can do the activity themselves, and take a sample, and understand why dissolved oxygen is important in our stream? We know more about it, and will remember more, when we’ve actually done the sampling ourselves.”

It also taught you how to describe things?

“Yeah, and to think about things at a really elementary level, but that’s the foundation. I felt like if I grasped it there, I had the potential to move upwards.”

And you always did school groups?

“I’ve also helped out with the Stream Team, and recruiting volunteers was a big component of my job. There’s a semester program here called wilderness studies, so we did take a college group out to the creek.”

What have the students taught you?

“One time we collaborated with the Montana Natural History Center for a big watershed festival and it was every 6th grade class in the city came on two or three different days and they rotated through [stations] and I just remember there were so many kids! One of our stations was looking at point versus non-point sourced pollution. It was the “Enviroscape”, a plastic landscape where you can say “this car’s leaking oil” and “these cows are pooping everywhere” and it’s all reaching the stream. I can remember clearly that there were some kids it really resonated with. They had to work in small groups and talk about management practices. And they took it really seriously which I appreciated, and I felt excited that these 12 year olds really cared and they were being creative about how they could make a difference.”

How does volunteering for WEN connect to community?

“I think the most vital thing that WEN does is spark people’s interest in water conservation. What better way to do it than actually taking them out to the site and showing them things that are wrong and make science come alive. Experiential education—people can actually do things, not just read about it in a textbook. It’s not the same. WEN benefits as much as the elementary school students that are going out to the creek or as the volunteers who are running the field trips or joining Stream Team. I think the more people we can impart the importance of stream health to, the better. It’s really a vital resource for humans and ecological restoration.”

Why did you start volunteering with WEN?

“I had gone to a volunteer training and gone out on a handful of field trips, and I was at that point doing an AmeriCorps term. It was good timing, when my AmeriCorps term ended and what they needed, more administrative work. So being the program coordinator, I mostly did logistics but, I also helped with field trip planning. That was definitely my highlight at WEN, getting out of the office and being in the creek with kids.

I started volunteering with them when I was in my AmeriCorps position and then I started working for them.”

You’ve kept volunteering with them?

“Yeah, off and on. Not as often as I’d like to recently just because my field work for grad school is time consuming. I hope I have more time in the future to go out on field trips because I really do enjoy hanging out with kids and talking about water issues.”

What has been your favorite volunteer experience?

“It’s really hard to just tease out one story. I really enjoyed working with Liam Wood fly fishing school, and the majority of  the students were from Butte homes, and fly fishing can be such an exclusive activity because it requires so much gear and paying a guide. It was really cool to see underprivileged students really enjoying this activity. I was more at the organization end of it because they hire a fly fishing guide. We’d also do ecological investigation, similar to the three stations—the physical, biological, and chemical stations that WEN usually does. Nature journaling and writing.

The amazing part about WEN is that they use all disciplines to tie in the importance of water. They use nature journaling and sketching, poetry and things to connect people to rivers. And then they’re more likely, even if they don’t care about water science, they’re more likely to perk up and listen to you about it.”