Experienced volunteers say it is worth the time

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation looks forward to accepting new volunteers into its annual docent training program, while past docents look back fondly on their experiences so far with the organization.

Laguna volunteer docents are trained in the natural and cultural history of the wetlands and participate in Learning Laguna, the organization’s elementary school education program. Docents are responsible for leading activities both in the classroom and during field trips to the Laguna.

Since the program’s inception in 1999, docents have taught more than 14,000 Sonoma County school children about the Laguna and led 542 classroom visits and 542 field trips to the Laguna, according to the foundation’s Director of Education Programs Christine Fontaine.

While many volunteers are either retirees or people who have cut back hours at work, not everyone waits until retirement to become part of the docent program. Franny Minervini-Zick ran the nature-based preschool Tree House Hollow out of her home for over two decades, before it became part of the Apple Blossom campus. When Minervini-Zick heard about the newly-realized docent training 25 years ago, she immediately wanted to be a part of the program, but felt her work wouldn’t allow enough flexibility to complete the 10 week training.

“Then, after that first class graduated, I saw in the picture three teachers that I knew!” Minervini-Zick said.

After conferring with those teachers, Minervini-Zick realized she could get a sub for the one day a week during the 10 week training session, after which the time commitment would become far less demanding.

Sebastopol family practitioner Connie Ayers also found a way to juggle her responsibilities at the office with her desire to join the foundation. Like many people who have become docents, Ayers decided to volunteer not only to work with kids, but to learn more about this local landmark she knew little about.

“It’s a place that a lot of people see, but don’t really understand,” Ayers said. “I was like that also. It was just a waterway. Periodically, you’d come to a bridge and you knew there was some sort of a creek underneath it, but you didn’t know the significance of it.”

Part of the docent training program requires the volunteers to investigate where the Laguna begins and empties, taking the volunteers out to areas many have never stopped to visit in the decades they have lived in the West County. The docents also learn about the wildlife that calls the wetland home, information Minervini-Zick feels every child should be exposed to in order to connect with their backyard.

“I think kids don’t get out enough these days. I think it’s because families are busy, and some families are scared of the outdoors,” said Minervini-Zick. “If we want children to take care of the world, they have to have experiences in it.”

Sandra Bodley, who has been a docent since 2005 and is now a day leader as well, shares Minervini-Zick’s views on the important role these educational programs play in the development of the county’s youth.

“It’s all about connecting these kids with nature, so they value it, so they’ll preserve it,” Bodley said.

Bodley, a retired nurse who taught nursing education at Sonoma State University for 30 years, found herself having to retool her teaching skills to fit the younger demographic and was appreciative of the guidance the training provided.

“It was hard for me to come down to the third and fourth grade level,” Bodley said. “To do that, I really needed structure and solid activities, which the foundation provided.”

Ayers agrees that the training was instrumental in forming her approach to the material and how she has taught children in her seven years of volunteering.

“You learn so much, from so many educators,” Ayers said. “You really learn about how to not just relay didactic material, but how to instill a curiosity in the kids.”

Bodley also said she’s learned a lot from watching how the other docents interact with the kids.

While many of the docents have a background in teaching, the only real constant among the volunteers is a curiosity and appreciation for the outdoors.

“The people who become docents, they’re all just really kind and wonderful down-to-earth people,” Minervini-Zick said. “We have similar interests, we like to hike, we like to go birdwatching together. It really is a community of like-minded people.”

Bodley agrees that the docent program has created a great network of people that has enriched her social life.

“Over the years I’ve met wonderful people that have been connected by the program,” Bodley said. “People who are interested in nature and the outdoors are easier for me to get along with.”

While some people may be deterred by the two-year commitment, Bodley insists that becoming a docent is well worth it.

“The time that you commit, you will get back a hundredfold,” Bodley said. “The connections you make to the land and the people are really life-enriching. It’s a good investment of your time, time being a precious commodity. We only have so much of it, but in this case, the returns are worth it.”

The training course will begin on March 9 and will meet on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 10 weeks.

Applicants must also sign up for an orientation session, held on either Monday, Feb. 2 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. or Thursday, Feb. 9, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Volunteer docents are expected to commit at least six mornings in the fall and six in spring for a minimum of 40 hours per year, for at least two years.

The docent training costs $145, though partial scholarships are available.

Go to www.lagunafoundation.org for more details or call Christine Fontaine at 527-9277 x102.

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