Community Connections Schools and Youth

Environmental Volunteers helps 10,000 students a year bridge the ‘nature gap’

Photo by Kristi Moos, Environmental Volunteers.

In our high tech world, kids of all backgrounds- but especially children from low income neighborhoods- are facing what’s being called the “nature gap.”   As Richard Louv, the best-selling author of the book, Last Child in the Woods, explains: “A child can probably tell you about the Amazon rainforest but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move”

Environmental Volunteers: connecting kids with nature since 1972

Students from East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS) enjoy the outdoors

Students from East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS) enjoy the outdoors

While awareness of the “nature gap” is slowly spreading, here in Palo Alto we have an organization that has been tackling this challenge for over 40 years: Environmental Volunteers (EV). Founded in 1972, Environmental Volunteers “believes all poeple deserve to learn about the natural world through personal exploration, so they can become responsible stewards of the Earth.” EV currently serves over 10,000 students a year through its school programs, EcoCenter and summer camps.

As their name states so clearly, EV accomplishes its mission through a corps of over 100 committed volunteers that guide children on field trips, classroom visits and at their thriving “EcoCenter” in the Palo Alto Baylands.

The EcoCenter, a Birge Clark-designed building that was home to the SeaScouts for many years, had fallen into disrepair before Environmental Volunteers took it over and restored it. After raising almost $4 million, EV reopened this beautiful building in 2012 as a nature center for the community as well as its headquarters.

The EcoCenter in the Palo Alto Baylands is the home of Environmental Volunteers and a great place to explore the Baylands

The EcoCenter in the Palo Alto Baylands is the home of Environmental Volunteers and a great place to explore local trails.

Nature exploration in the classroom and in the field reaches 10,000 students a year

Environmental Volunteers has two school-based offerings: classroom visits and field trips, which both allow children a chance to interact with nature in new ways. During classroom visits, EV’s trained volunteers facilitate hands-on lessons that are not only engaging and fun, but also linked to California standards for STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) in topics such as “earthquake geology,” and “energy and natural resources.” EV also leads follow up field trips at places like Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach.

EV experiences are free for schools serving low income students

“Most of the schools we serve work with low income children,” explained Kristi Moos, EV’s marketing and communications director. “Wonderfully, we receive grants that allow us to make the programs free for these schools, while other schools that are middle income receive partial scholarships. Since we serve many of the same schools year after year, we know their financial needs and can dial them in ahead of time.”

EV also operates an after school program through the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula (BCGP), where kids explore nature to spark their interest in science and other STEM subjects.

New $200k grant from Superbowl 50Fund will help EV expand free transportation 

In January 2016, EV was excited to learn it is one of nine recipients of a $200,000 ‘game changer‘ grant from the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee to support its Transportation Fund, which allows Environmental Volunteers to offer easy-to-schedule, efficient and safe transportation to facilitate access to science and environmental education field trips for low income youth in the Bay Area. The Game Changer grant will expand the Transportation Fund’s reach with an additional 340 buses, sending over 13,000 more students on field trips.

East Palo Alto Charter School students exploring outside during a Environmental Volunteers program

East Palo Alto Charter School students exploring outside during a Environmental Volunteers program

Recruiting more Environmental Volunteers to meet growing demand


Photo by Palo Alto Pulse

“We are lucky that there is demand from so many local schools,” said Kristi Moos. “But our biggest capacity limitation is the number of volunteers we have available. Although we have amazing volunteers who have been with EV for 20 years or more, we are always looking for more great people.” EV is particularly keen to find volunteers who speak Spanish to help serve kids in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, where many of their partner schools are located.

We tagged along on an EV classroom visit to East Palo Alto Charter School recently to see why this organization continues to thrive, and how it is helping foster the next generation of children to take care of the earth.

‘Schoolyard Snoop’ shows kids how to discover the living things all around them 

The program we observed is called “Schoolyard Snoop,” where children notice nature on the school grounds, whether it’s a patch of grass next to the blacktop or a tree in the playground. Before going outside, EV volunteer Sue So, along with two teaching interns, gathered the 20+ second grade students on the rug to clarify a few key ideas, asking the kids to name what is alive (pets were a frequent guess) and what is not (one child was disappointed to learn that a car is not in fact alive).

EV volunteer Sue So helps EPACS students figure out what is alive and what is not

EV volunteer Sue So helps EPACS students figure out what is alive and what is not

After the kids got to touch bones, fur and other artifacts, they broke into groups to explore EPAC’s gigantic garden, running with excitement in the damp air and calling out to announce their finds.

A chance to get up close to flowers, leaves and even a worm

“Look! Little flowers,” two girls said while another stroked a leaf, exclaiming, “It’s so soft!” A group of kids gathered around a worm that Sue found in the wet leaves, clamoring to touch it and wanting it to crawl in their hands and arms.

EPACS student observes a tree during "Schoolyard Snoop." Photo by Kristi Moos, EV

EPACS student observes a tree during “Schoolyard Snoop.” Photo by Kristi Moos, EV

After about 20 minutes of roaming the garden, the kids went back inside to draw pictures of what they saw. The kids’ enthusiasm for the Environmental Volunteers’ program was evident, and it’s one of the reasons EV volunteers stay with the organization for many years. “I love the variety of both getting kids outside and working with them in the classroom,” said Sue So. “The kids get so excited about what they see and experience,” said Genivive Clow, an EV teaching intern and student at Santa Clara University.

“I need dirt!”

Suddenly a voice came from the other side of the classroom where a girl was coloring a picture of the garden she had just explored. “Guys, I need a brown crayon,” she said, “I need dirt!” Thanks to Environmental Volunteers, more kids are learning to love nature- and dirt- every year.


Learn more and get involved with Environmental Volunteers…

  • To learn more about Environmental Volunteers, visit
  • Environmental Volunteers is a 501(c)3 organization. To give to Environmental Volunteers, click here or
  • To volunteer, sign up here or at Training for school volunteers takes place twice a year, and training for EcoCenter docents is ongoing. No previous science knowledge or experience is necessary.
  • To visit the EcoCenter, head to 2560 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto.




About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.