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Youth for Raingardens for Orcas

Zoo youth volunteers love orcas. Orcas love raingardens. And gardens are outside. Put them all together and you have the perfect recipe for volunteering outside, staying safe during Covid-19 and helping save our southern resident orcas into the bargain.

This October, youth volunteers from Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium teamed up with local nonprofit groups Defenders of Wildlife, Pierce Conservation District and The Trust for Public Lands to build a garden for orcas: a raingarden, that is, which filters stormwater before it can pollute Puget Sound, home to these endangered marine animals.

And the timing – Orca Recovery Day – was perfect.

Planting for Orcas

youth planting raingarden
Zoo senior guide Enjoli Shaw holds up a lavender in the new raingarden at First Creek Middle School.

Saturday October 17 was rainy, ideal for planting. Four of the Zoo’s teen volunteers showed up – masked, socially distanced and in staggered shifts – at First Creek Middle School in Tacoma to help transform a bare piece of ground into a raingarden.

Adult volunteers from partner organizations had already done the prep work: A raingarden works by absorbing stormwater runoff and filtering it into the ground, so you need to dig a depression and often lay down drainage materials before backfilling with good soil. They’d also dug holes for native shrubs, plants and grasses that can withstand both soggy soil in winter and drier conditions in summer.

Now it was the turn of the Zoo youth – two Senior Guides and two Zoo Guides. Clad in jeans and rainjackets, they listened carefully to planting instructions, then spread out and got to work.

“It was super-fun,” said senior guide Enjoli Shaw, who’s been a Zoo volunteer for five years now. “They taught us good planting techniques and we worked together for the bigger shrubs. It was good to get out there and do something hands-on to help the community and conservation.”

Other Zoo youth on the team included senior guide Logan Cornwell and Zoo guides Breanna Koch and Adrianna Pettway.

Planting for Communities

youth planting raingarden
Zoo youth guide Adrianna Pettway in the new raingarden at First Creek Middle School.

The First Creek raingarden was just one of a raft of gardens being built this fall by small, socially-distanced groups as part of the Orcas Love Raingardens partnership. Led by national wildlife nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, Orcas Love Raingardens draws in partners around Tacoma to help communities with the resources, know-how and volunteers to build raingardens where they’re most needed. In particular, gardens are being built on school grounds as part of Trust for Public Lands’ Green School Yards project, where they add community green space and a place to teach folks about protecting the environment.

“This raingarden will not only capture and filter stormwater runoff, which is the largest source of pollution entering the Salish Sea and which harms endangered orcas,” explained Robb Krehbiel, Defenders of Wildlife’s Northwest representative. “It will also be used as an outdoor classroom for First Creek Middle School, and for the Eastside Community Center just nearby.”

Separately, due to Covid-19 distancing protocols, Zoo staff also helped out with the raingarden project. Four conservation engagement staff members, including Zoo youth volunteer coordinator Emily Pinckney, headed out on Oct. 19 to help with another Tacoma raingarden at Baker Middle School.

Helping in a Pandemic

youth planting raingarden
Zoo senior guide Logan Cornwell in the new raingarden at First Creek Middle School.

But while the raingardens will certainly do their work in protecting orcas and educating communities, they also help in another way: giving volunteers a much-needed way to get hands-on outside in a pandemic.

“This kind of work helps reinforce our conservation message, but it’s also a wonderful way for our youth to do conservation work outside in a safe, distanced way,” said Pinckney, who has been juggling her 137 middle and high school youth volunteers mostly online since the Zoo reopened in June. “The youth also get to work alongside Zoo staff and amazing groups like Defenders of Wildlife, and to be our ambassadors out in the community.”

And they were truly appreciated.

“The Zoo teens were fabulous,” commented Allie Campbell, water quality outreach specialist for Pierce Conservation District, who helped led the First Creek planting. “They asked a lot of great questions, were quick learners and were one of the fastest crews I have worked with. I think living through a pandemic has been hard on all of us in so many different ways, and when they left asking when they could come back it was such a cool and positive response.”

“It would be fun to do again if there were more opportunities like this,” agreed Cornwell, a four-year Zoo youth volunteer. “It’s hard to find stuff to actually do – everything’s online now.”

Getting together – safely

youth planting raingarden
Zoo youth guide Breanna Koch helps plant the new raingarden at First Creek Middle School.

That difficulty is something Pinckney keeps in mind when she plans how to engage the Zoo’s youth. Some are comfortable coming onto Zoo grounds, others need to stay home and join Zoom sessions. But some have helped in other creative ways: Shaw and Cornwell, for instance, recently spent a week traveling Tacoma’s parks to make videos on the nature they find there to share with students at Arlington Elementary, where Zoo staff are continuing their groundbreaking Wildlife Champions nature science program in virtual form.

Pinckney and her teens are also busy planning the 2021 Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, cohosted with Seattle Aquarium, and this year completely online, free and open to all Pierce County teens in grades 7-12.

“We spend so much time on screens, there’s a huge mental health impact,” explains Pinckney. “We really need to find ways to safely help out in the real world.”

Finally, after all the plants were in, the teens spread mulch all around to conserve water and feed the garden as it grows. The team surveyed their work with satisfaction.

“We rely so much on volunteers and I’m just glad that we were able to work together to produce something wonderful in such a difficult time,” summed up Allie Campbell.