I also love working with children. In one of my early teaching experiences, I was a summer camp counselor with the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club. Camp children were often nervous about being away from home and out in nature, as well as excited and eager to experience new things. I learned so much from my young campers about supporting each individual child in their learning, and about building relationships with them. My experiences working with the children at Camp Mendocino in the California redwood forest fostered my commitment to teaching under-resourced children.

I realized my calling to environmental education, studied for my teaching credential, and got my first classroom teacher assignment at a multicultural, inner-city elementary school in South East London. With my first class of fourth-grade students, we set up a schoolwide recycling system, worked on a nature area on the school grounds, went on many nature-based field trips, and created environmental action clubs. I even taught my students about watershed ecology through movement and dance. This was my first class of inspired environmentalists!

photo of Mandi Billinge
Mandi Billinge started KIDS for the BAY to bring hands-on, engaging environmental science education, focusing on the local watershed, to children and teachers, especially in low-income urban schools.Photo courtesy of KIDS for the BAY

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1992, I discovered the beautiful San Francisco Bay estuary. I was surprised to find how similar this environment was to the Humber estuary ecosystem in Northern England, where I studied biology at Hull University, though with very different weather! The San Francisco Bay estuary and the urban creeks that flow into it became the focus of my work in environmental education. I also realized that many children growing up in urban areas do not have the same opportunities that I had as a child to explore nature.

I started KIDS for the BAY to bring hands-on, engaging environmental science education, focusing on the local watershed, to children and teachers, especially in low-income urban schools. I believe that everyone is an environmentalist! This is my project’s motto and my team and I are committed to equal access to environmental education for all children. Our programs connect children with nature, get them excited about learning hands-on science, and empower them to take action to help their local environment.

KIDS for the BAY students get to explore creek, bay-estuary, and ocean habitats, meet tiny bay shoreline crabs, discover sea anemones in ocean tide pools, and find dragonfly nymphs in local creeks. After learning how trash harms the creek, bay, and ocean life connected to their neighborhoods through the storm drain system, many students are inspired to take environmental action. They complete trash clean-up projects, lead schoolwide assemblies to teach their entire school communities about protecting the watershed by reducing plastic trash and waste, make and distribute green pesticides for school and home gardens, and teach their families how to safely prepare and cook fish from the bay to reduce the intake of toxins. They also learn about local environmental justice leaders and become leaders and environmentalists within their schools and families.

My work with KIDS for the BAY has now provided this opportunity for 94,786 children. I am very thankful to our amazing team, to every one of our students, and the 3,824 partner teachers who have been a part of this work over the past 28 years. Looking back on all my years of teaching environmental education and running an organization, I remember so many children who have been excited to clean up a plastic bag from a beach so that it would not harm a sea turtle, or plant a tree by their local creek and make a wish for it to grow strong and healthy. I firmly believe that anyone can be an environmentalist if they are empowered with hands-on environmental science education experiences, the tools for taking environmental action, and the opportunity to connect with nature.