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Providing Access to Environmental Education within Our Diverse Community

In mid-March, two of Berks Nature’s educators, Michael Griffith and Melissa Acosta, earned the opportunity to present at the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educator’s (PAEE) Annual Conference.

This conference serves as an annual gathering to both celebrate Pennsylvania’s thriving environmental education network and to advance the field by sharing successes, challenges, and resources among the Commonwealth’s talented educators and naturalists.

The theme of this year’s conference was Old Forests, New Lessons: Growing as Educators; a topic for Berks Nature’s education team which has grown significantly in size, capacity, and focus over the last year.

One such focus is making our nature center, The Nature Place, more welcoming and inclusive for a greater diversity of Berks County residents. The geographic and socioeconomic climate of the greater Reading area have changed over the years and thus, so too must Berks Nature’s approach to outreach and education adapt to remain Reading’s nature center.

Melissa Acosta, Berks Nature’s Community Educator

Melissa Acosta joined the Berks Nature team to champion this mission; first as the Delaware River Watershed Fellow, an initiative funded by the Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE), before matriculating later into the role of Community Educator.

These early efforts to change Berks Nature’s approach to outreach and environmental education were detailed in Melissa and Michael’s presentation at the PAEE Annual Conference.

Together, Melissa and Michael highlighted the new tools, resources, and opportunities the Berks Nature education team has started to employ, bringing new environmental awareness and experiences to the great Reading area; a growing key ring with which to open new doors into nature for our Reading neighbors.

As a Hispanic, bilingual woman, Melissa has provided translations for Berks Nature’s educational materials and promotional flyers. In 2023, Melissa will also lead a series of bilingual English-Spanish nature programs, thanks to her mastery of both languages and natural gift for environmental education.

In 2022, financial support and training provided by AWE and a partnership with the 18th Wonder Improvement Association allowed Berks Nature to design a district-specific outreach strategy to reconnect with our neighbors in Reading’s 18th Ward.

led the implementation of this strategy, under the mentorship of Berks Nature’s VP for Development & Community Relations, Tami Shimp, which included bilingual outreach programs, community surveys, and a new nature play area at the local community garden.

The Nature Place has also hosted field trips from the Reading School District, Olivets Boys’ & Girls’ Club, Reading Recreation Center, and Sisters in STEM – a program of the Reading Science Center designed to excite, encourage, educate and foster a love for science in young girls from the inner city of Reading.

Melissa recounts feeling especially inspired to serve as a relatable role model for these young women and to share her personal journey in a STEM career.

But these efforts have not been without their challenges as well. An overly ambitious scope of work, low community engagement (at times), and some degree of impatience on Berks Nature’s side are among the early missteps in implementing this increasingly intentional and inclusive outreach strategy. But as Melissa has learned, with every challenge comes the opportunity for solutions.

“We have made, do make, and will make more mistakes on this journey,” explains Melissa at the opening of her and Michael’s PAEE presentation, “This presentation is about valuing our organization’s history, honoring the past – both good and bad – acknowledging that we need to change, and developing steps to adapt and change. This process never ends, and we have a lot of room to grow.”

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