Elise Wirkus is one determined young lady! “I want to make progressive environmental change more approachable to people. I want to be the person people think of when they decide to recycle or to compost, or even something as big as choosing a more complicated, but more environmentally sound business plan.” Now a junior at UW-Madison, Elise is double majoring in Environmental Studies and Legal Studies, with the intention of going to law school someday, and eventually working on behalf of the environmental issues and causes that have become sincere passions of hers.
If you visit the Menomonee Valley branch at the Urban Ecology Center on a Tuesday or Thursday, you’ll be enthusiastically greeted by either Carlos Vazquez or Gustavo Mayorga at the reception desk. These two 16 year-olds know just about as much about the Urban Ecology Center as any of our staff, but you might be surprised to find out that they are volunteer interns from Carmen High School of Science and Technology. In fact, when you see them at the Center, they’re actually in school!
Carlos and Gustavo are both juniors, and in their sophomore year, they were selected for the school’s internship program. Now they spend one day a week volunteering at a local business or organization with the goal of learning professional skills—and the Urban Ecology Center was lucky enough to be their placement! While these two are invaluable resources to us, their involvement at the Urban Ecology Center has also enabled them to experience new opportunities and has impacted the way they think about the future.
Eight years ago, Shorewood resident Ann Brummitt was teaching her 20th year of high school French, helping students conjugate verbs, and interpret French literature and history. While she enjoyed being an educator, she felt the need to make a change in her life and her career.
"I wanted to be an environmental activist."
After a long conversation with Executive Director Ken Leinbach about finding a project she could dig her hands into, Ann started volunteering at the Urban Ecology Center.
We generally remember the simple lessons we learn as kids: don’t talk with your mouth full; put things back where you found them; say please and thank you. We often pass on those easy to remember and easy to follow rules to our children too. While they help shape us into well mannered adults, there are other important lessons in life. And as Preston Cole explained to me as we chatted one afternoon, teaching children to appreciate and understand our natural world is paramount for our collective future. After all, they will become the next generation to steward our natural resources.
Darrin Madison is no stranger to the Urban Ecology Center. Having been involved with the Washington Park branch since its opening in 2007, sixteen year-old Darrin has experienced a variety of activities that have helped him grow as an individual and a community member. "The first day I came to the Center, it was during the summer and I was at the Washington Park Library. When I left, I saw a group of kids playing ultimate Frisbee close to the lagoon, and they invited me to play with them. After that, I always spent time here because I love it," Darrin recalls with a grin. After that initial experience, Darrin was hooked. He has remained actively involved over the years through his interaction as a Young Scientists Club member and as a High School Outdoor Leader.
My mom and aunt used to ride bikes along the sidewalks that outlined the empty lots of their mostly abandoned subdivision. It was here they and their friends would play and dream – where the grasses grew tall with brightly colored wildflowers painting the landscape and the groves of trees provided a magical oasis. Little did they know this place was meant to be built up with houses, one next to the other, and just how lucky they were the economic crisis of the 1930’s had stalled these plans. This enchanting place, where their imaginations could run wild, would remain unchanged for the rest of their childhood.
Thirteen year-old VeAndre chuckles as he recalls his first experience at the Urban Ecology Center so many years ago. “I remember I was 7 years old and scared to go out on the canoe because I thought I’d fall in the water or something,” VeAndre reflects. Now, six years later, he proudly states that he loves canoeing and being active outdoors. Enthusiastically participating in programs at the Urban Ecology Center’s Washington Park branch has allowed VeAndre to explore his passions and grow both professionally and personally.
That big bright grin of Donald’s might seem familiar to you... he and his family were featured earlier this year in a blog article that explained how the Urban Ecology Center’s scholarship program makes membership benefits accessible for families like his that do not have the means to contribute financially.
Jada has blossomed through her participation in the Young Scientists Club at the Urban Ecology Center’s Washington Park branch. Before becoming involved, Jada was shy and reluctant to present ideas and projects in front of others.
Now, eleven year-old Jada has radically improved her social skills as she actively engages with others in research projects and conferences.