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Isabel LaCourse, the education coordinator for Tualatin Riverkeepers, hopes to help others access nature



Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Isabel LaCourse, education coordinator for the Tualatin Riverkeepers talks about one of her favorite spots in Dirksen Nature Park, the wetlands. Isabel LaCourse was talking about the possibility of owls in the woods at Dirksen Nature Park in Tigard when she noticed a dead rabbit in the middle of the trail. Without hesitation, she picked up a stick and began gently poking and prodding the deceased critter.

“Well, what else are you supposed to do when you find a dead rabbit?” the Tualatin Riverkeepers education coordinator said. “Huh, that’s weird — it doesn’t have a head.”

If LaCourse’s typical audience of kindergarten through fifth graders had been around, a conversation about how the rabbit came to die surely would have ensued. They would have talked about why the rabbit lived there in the first place, and maybe what its predators were — human and otherwise. The conversation might have turned to what invasive species are and what they mean for native ecosystems. They would have talked about how people can be invasive, but they can also choose not to be.

“We’re really emphasizing that it’s about relationship. I’ve had a lot of kids be like, ‘People are invasive.’ So really emphasizing the point that people have the capacity to make choices,” said LaCourse. “We can behave like the native plant and build relationships and maintain balance. Or, we can (behave like the invasive plant and) try to push everything else out and take over. That’s the difference between people and plants is we have that choice.” Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Students participating in a field trip at Dirksen Nature Park in the spring scan Summer Creek for interesting plants and animals.

Growing up in Southeast Portland, LaCourse was by no means surrounded by nature. But one of her favorite spots was the schoolyard across the street, which featured a towering cedar tree that she frequently took the liberty of climbing to the top of in elementary school. When she’d reach her destination at the floppiest, springiest branches, she’d think, “This is the way things are supposed to be.” Down below, everyone would be yelling at her to return to the ground.

“That’s just the way it was,” she said with a laugh.

Wherever she went growing up, LaCourse found a way to immerse herself in nature. Through various programs and mentors, she also developed an interest in education and outreach, ultimately leading to her job at TRK, which combines all of these elements. On top of her full-time job, the 27-year-old is also pursuing her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University, owns a business with her wife that helps people grow and sustain their own edible gardens, and recently took in two young foster children. LaCourse, it seems, has always thought about the world outside herself.

From a young age, she was not only aware of her relationship with nature, but also aware of her relationship with her indigenous ancestors and history. From this awareness came mentors and programs that helped LaCourse on her way to adulthood, instilling a philanthropic drive by age 11 through peer education and encouraging her to volunteer with Search and Rescue by age 14. All these years later, LaCourse is still the person reaching out and helping students, providing nature immersion and education to those who might not have access to it otherwise. Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - As the education coordinator for the Tualatin Riverkeepers, Isabel LaCourse uses her knowledge in a variety of ways, whether it's identifying animals in the forest, or digging into a pile of woodchips looking for mold.

“What’s more rewarding than that? To know firsthand that these kinds of things make a difference in people’s lives, because they made a difference in mine,” she said. “It’s fun, too, to try and reflect on the people who came in and were doing what I’m doing, and seeing them as more human now. It’s fulfilling. You get to go to work every day and be out here, meet cool people and trust that you’re making the world a better place.”

After nearly two years in the job, LaCourse is hoping to expand the educational programs TRK currently has and continue to grow them. One program involves springtime field trips to Dirksen Nature Park, where elementary kids from Title I schools can come out for several hours and learn about riparian zones, ecosystems and wetlands, led by volunteer naturalists. The learning is inquiry-based and questions are always encouraged.

“(Nature) makes you healthy. It makes you able to learn. It makes you ready to learn. It makes you open to new relationships both with human people and non-human people,” said LaCourse. “So even if the kid thinks they’re not having a good time, you know it’s still beneficial. And very, very rarely will the kids not think they’re having a good time.”

Beyond the class field trips, through a partnership that began in 2004 with Adelante Mujeres, a group that works to educate and empower Latina women and their families, LaCourse intends to start a program where young women could come through a cohort that would lead to them to internship or camp counseling positions. If all goes as planned, this would be funded by a three-year grant that LaCourse is applying for this month. But of course, this all stems from her own journey and wanting to provide others with the same opportunities that she was granted, and to help people understand that nature doesn’t have to be “us and them.”

“Rebuilding that connection, rebuilding that sense of place, that sense of stewardship — it’s reciprocal. You give and it gives, and if you don’t pay attention to it, then it goes away or it does something that you don’t want it to do that’s not healthy,” LaCourse said. “This is what sustains us. This is what makes us be alive.” Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Isabel LaCourse, education coordinator for the Tualatin Riverkeepers teaches students about what lives and grows at Dirksen Nature Park in Tigard. The first field trips of 2015 are slated to begin in March.

2014 Tualatin Riverkeepers wrap-up; 2015 projections

The Tualatin Riverkeepers had a good year. They hosted their biggest event ever — over 300 Intel employees came out to remove ivy and blackberry plants from Dirksen Nature Park; they got close to 3,000 people out on the Tualatin River; they educated students from Title I schools; and they hosted a summit that brought 85 people together to talk about tree codes.

They must be doing something right, and they don't plan on stopping there. In 2015, expect more restoration projects, more local business involvement and increased efforts to keep certain wetlands and hillsides in their (relatively) natural states.

“TRK's role is to bring the public to the restoration process, helping them understand why this is important for water quality, etcetera, and having a lot of fun while we do it,” said executive director Mike Skuja. “Integrating the public and citizens and children,is number one. But two, we're trying to get businesses to get an interest in the river and in doing active things outdoor. River cleanups, tree planting, weed pulls, things like that.”

This year, they're also revamping the River Professors program, where guest speakers are brought in monthly to talk to volunteers and the public about science, ecology and history of the area.

“It was something we just needed to do. Basically, we have this staff,” said Brian Wegener, the advocacy and communications manager. “We have a whole lot of volunteers, and some of them are incredibly talented. If we can get more volunteers and bring these new volunteers up to the level that we have already, then that'd be great.”

TRK is at capacity for many of its programs based on the number of volunteers currently enrolled, and new volunteers are greatly needed for program expansion. If you're interested in becoming a naturalist for TRK's educational programs, email Isabel LaCourse at isabel(at)tualatinriverkeepers(dot)org. To be a river guide, email Margot Fervia-Neamtzu at margo(at)tualatinriverkeepers(dot)com. For other volunteer opportunities or inquiries, email Brian Wegener at brian(at)tualatinriverkeepers(dot)com.

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