My summer internship with Nature Forward

This post written by Nature Forward Summer 2023 Intern Alex Bennett

My name is Alex Bennett. I am from Arlington, Virginia, and this fall I will be a Junior at Virginia Tech. I interned with Nature Forward this summer, primarily doing conservation outreach and advocacy in the Northern Virginia area. 

What I did:

I worked with Renee Grebe, Nature Forward’s Northern Virginia Conservation Advocate, to organize community events and educate the residents therein about our mission, as well as the ecosystems they live near.

At the start of my internship, I was tasked to help plan storm drain labeling events in the Audubon and Sequoyah neighborhoods of Alexandria, Virginia. To do this, I first had to reach out to the community leaders in each neighborhood. Once connected, we planned a meeting where Renee and I would brief them on the importance of labeling storm drains. In these meetings, we also taught them how to lead residents in doing the labeling themselves. This spread awareness on how community and stream health are connected, as well as ensured the community leaders could host similar events at their whim. 

Alex Bennett helping resident volunteers label storm drain in Sequoyah Condominiums as part of a larger event where over 70 drains were labeled.

Additionally, we had to reach out to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District to acquire supplies for labeling, and educational materials we could hand out on the day of the actual event. Spreading word of the event was imperative. On my part, I handed out flyers at community centers and local food distributions. The community leaders also got the word out through WhatsApp. Come the day of the event, our team was tasked with teaching participants the value of labeling storm drains and how to do so. Some other team members and I each led a group of volunteers around the neighborhood to label unmarked storm drains. It felt very satisfying to see that the residents were having a good time, and eager to help label as many storm drains as possible. 

Our main method of educational outreach was presenting at tables in different community events over the summer. These tables would have pamphlets that would advertise other Nature Forward events, as well as the Creek Critters app. Additionally, there was an array of resin cubes that contained different macroinvertebrates that live in local streams. Finally, our most popular attraction was a spinning wheel game where kids would have to identify the different macroinvertebrates in the resin cubes, and link what lives in the stream to how clean the water is. We would also encourage residents to stay connected with Nature forward via our Action Alert mailing lists. To me, these were the most rewarding experiences I have had in this internship. It was always fun getting to talk to the kids about some of the different animals in and around the stream, and giving them praise when they knew a particular fact about the environment.

What I learned:

Even though I have done community outreach/event work before, I have always had a feeling that what I did at these hour-long to half-a-day events would amount to little in the long run. However, after all of the work I have done this summer and the effects I have seen it have on people, I see more clearly how valuable these acts of service are. Seeing people of all ages get so engaged in this field has encouraged me to want to improve how I go about serving these communities. I look back to when I was a kid and was participating in events like these. Those little pockets of time helped foster my interest in the natural world–and I can see the same thing happening here with some of these individuals.

This internship has also impacted my field of study! For my first few years of college, I was majoring in Landscape Architecture. I did so, because I felt it was the only viable field of study where I could learn how to create a world where both natural ecosystems, and more human/urban habitats could thrive. As interesting as it is, the architecture portion never really clicked with me. The environmental aspect was what always allured me. 

Alex Bennett (in teal shirt) helped local advocates mulch a local park’s playground as part of a mini-service day where advocates celebrated getting increased funding for the Fairfax County Park Authority in the county budget. Photo credit Toni Genberg.

However, I was discouraged to change majors to something more environmentally-centered, because I felt that I couldn’t help people as much as I potentially could if I created something tangible–like a building. My time with Nature Forward has abated those reservations, however, and this summer I switched my major to Environmental Conservation and Society. With the work I did, I saw that providing the right experiences to people can help them and the environment in the long-run.