Volunteer Stories – Travis Ross


Why did you start volunteering with WEN?

“My work is in water quality and WEN had such awesome connections with kids and we weren’t doing any work with kids at my office so it was really a cool fit to be able to work with kids and teach and learn.

[I work for] the Water Quality District. It’s a branch of local government. We’re in the health department and our focus is on local water resources and groundwater and surface water protection. WEN does a lot for local water resource protection in the form of education. One of the biggest things with water resource protection is education and getting kids to understand the values and resources in the watershed and to appreciate them.

We love what we know and getting the kids out to rivers and creeks and doing water testing it’s just a fabulous way to get them to know and appreciate and protect.”

Where did you move from?

Alabama. I went to college in Alabama and lived in Kentucky for a while. I worked with water in Alabama; I worked at an agency called Storm Water Management Authority. We were working with significantly impaired water bodies. It was places you wouldn’t even call streams in Montana, they were just so polluted! They were urban, highly urbanized, channelized, concrete creeks running through Birmingham.

Moving out here it was amazing to see water that needed protection and not rehabilitation! It’s kind of a neat position to be in; coming to Montana and having these beautiful streams. I walked a lot of the streams in Birmingham, we were doing mapping, GPS mapping, at the time, and we would go through sections that were devoid of vegetation and life. There was nothing! There was not even algae growing; it was just so polluted. And to come here, kids know the names of rivers and the streams in Missoula county. That’s not something to take lightly; (…) where I grew up people didn’t know the names of their streams and their rivers. It just was not significant enough to give it a name. Here, you know, we even use it reference to everything, ‘I live on the Bitterroot’ or ‘I live on the Clark Fork’ or ‘I live up Grant Creek’. It’s all about water and I think that’s key to the significance of the place here.”

What have you done as a volunteer over the years?

“When I first started, the Milltown dam was a big deal. It was still in place and there were still debates on whether to remove it or to leave it in place. As the decision came to remove the dam WEN started doing more education related to Milltown. So that was some of my first experiences [with WEN], going out to the dam with kids and teacher groups and talking about the history of mining contamination on the Clark Fork and how Milltown dam got designated as a Superfund Site.

So those were some of my first experiences. Then we started doing work with the Watershed Festival with the Montana Natural History Center, kicking up bugs and doing the Enviroscape [model lesson, which entails] teaching kids about point and non-point source pollution. I’ve also done presentations about groundwater. Which is another cool thing. It’s hard for kids to visualize groundwater movement and contamination and working with WEN to demonstrate that through a visual model just really brings it home and shows the vulnerability of our aquifer and why it deserves/needs protection.

There have been so many different science fairs, and of course just going out and doing physical monitoring too. A lot of times on the WEN field trips, I get to do chemistry with kids. For me, chemistry in college was pretty dull. I honestly hated it. But when you try to explain something in a way that’s engaging to kids, you get more engaged too! I’ve learned something just about every time I go on a field trip. I get a question, I haven’t thought of before and I get to go back and google it. There have been a number of questions that I’ve had to go back and find the answers too. I like that too! You get kids who just think outside of the box! That’s always neat!”

What have you learned from interacting with students over ten years?

“A lot of it has been how to interact with kids and effective ways to communicate with kids. It’s not so much the subject matter, it’s how you relate with them. I’ve learned from watching other volunteers and other program [coordinators] over the past few years. It’s just neat! Everybody’s got their own style. And Deb’s just tremendous and has a great report with kids. She’s awesome and I’ve learned a lot from her and Rebecca and a couple [program coordinators] before that.

Thinking about experiences, I have to say one of the most touching to me was just last year. I went on a field trip with just Deb and I. We did a field trip for a group of kids who had lost a parent or sibling [Tamarack Grief Resources]. And we went out there to talk about the life cycles of bugs and aquatic insects and how they change, basically different parts of their life. Deb had a book about these aquatic macroinvertebrates; [the story was about] how when they’re in their larval stage they talked to each other and admired the adult bugs that were outside of the water, doing their thing and flying around, having so much fun. But they couldn’t talk to them or hear their experiences [so they] promised each other that once they arrived to the adult stage [of their lives] that they would come back and talk to their friends and tell them what it’s all like. And of course one got to that stage and couldn’t do that.

Taking those kids for a walk along Grant Creek and being present with them and open to their explorations… They were turning over rocks and discovering bugs and getting excited about it. Knowing also what they were going through at the same time and watching their experience with the creek and the wildlife around the creek; it was just really a cool experience just to be with them and support them in their exploration and not have an agenda really. Not have a prescribed lesson plan for the day, but just kind of open to where it may go. It was just an experience that I thought was really neat.

It’s cool that WEN is available for that kind of experience as well, not just the classroom or any of their other field trips but also in these spontaneous parts of the community where they’re needed.”

Any other experiences to share?

“One of the first field trips I went on with WEN was in Lolo, on the Bitterroot, and it was just pouring down rain! It was just miserable, or at least I thought it was miserable. We don’t go out in the rain in the South; you just stay inside! I thought, ‘Oh, for sure they’re going to cancel this field trip.’ But, no! It was still on and I met the program coordinator at the time and another volunteer out there. And we’ve got these kids huddled around tables out there. The rain is just pouring down, yet they’re still engaged and interested in what we’re talking about despite the physical discomfort. I don’t know if it’s Montana or if it’s just the subject matter is really interesting to them but rain or shine WEN’s out there!

I [also] like those kind of presentations and field trips where the format is loose and you can kind of just see where it goes and where their interests lie and explore with them; that’s a really neat format.”

What do you see as most rewarding?

“Hearing questions from kids. Actually experiencing them getting engaged; that’s really rewarding to me! That means that they get it, that they see an importance, that they’re making connections and that they’re going to be stewards of our water resources. I think that’s awesome whenever you get questions!

Not so much when they just sit there… when you’re trying to get them engaged… but most of the times you get questions!

OR! Another thing that’s cool is when, and this happens a lot, when they’ve already exposure to WEN. When they’ve had, maybe it’s a 7th or 8th grade class and they’ve been out to this same stream before with WEN and they’re getting to see it again and maybe asking them about changes. Indications that they’re engaged are really cool. Questions. Excitement. Interest. That, that’s what’s exciting.”

How does it connect to your work at the Water Quality District?

“Well, we have a really short mission, which I quite like. Our mission is to improve and protect groundwater and surface water quality. Education is so key to protection! Again, like I mentioned, people protect what they love. In Missoula, we’re lucky to have floatable waters, fishable waters, drinkable groundwater, Brennan’s wave, a river trail system that gets people near the river. We have resources that are worth protecting that are enjoyed by the community and WEN is a huge component of that with kids.

They get kids to the river. Just getting them close to it and getting them to slow down long enough to look at bugs under rocks is huge! To know that they are animals that depend on cold, clean water for their survival which are connected to the fish we like to catch. It’s just hugely important for them to get to the river and that really helps us with our mission to protect groundwater and surface water.”