You may not know these women—but you should
Everywhere we work, we meet creative, tough, dedicated women rallying their neighbors to create and protect green space. Their accomplishments usually go unacknowledged—but through the Cox Conserves Heroes program, we’re able to recognize and share some of their most inspiring stories. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting some of the women making a difference for conservation in their communities. You may not know them yet, but we think their work is history in the making.
Isabel Herrera was always drawn to the ocean. While still in high school, she started volunteering with the Ocean Discovery Institute to educate more than 1,500 kids in her neighborhood of City Heights on practical ways to help the environment—from keeping pollutants out of storm drains to choosing reusable bags over single-use plastic. Isabel, now 24, went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at UC Santa Cruz and wetlands research in Baja, Mexico. And she’s definitely not done teaching. “One of my goals is to continue to mentor kids, so they can be tomorrow’s leaders,” she says. “Like a chain that won’t break.”
In Swahili, “Jenga” means “build”—and that’s just what Jenga Mwendo is out to do in New Orleans. After returning to the Lower Ninth Ward post–Hurricane Katrina, she realized it was as important to restore neighborhood character and traditions as it was to replace buildings and homes. As the founder of the Backyard Gardener’s Network, Jenga worked to transform an overgrown lot used as a dumping ground into a beautiful, productive community space. Her advice? “Anybody that’s thinking about doing this sort of work: it’s necessary. You’re needed, you are powerful, and you can make change happen in your neighborhood.”
The Roanoke Valley Chapter of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway was floundering until Heidi Ketler came along. Since joining the chapter, Heidi has volunteered a staggering 2,000 hours for the group, which assists the National Park Service with cleanups and infrastructure projects. As adept at building connections as trails, Heidi has recruited more than 200 other volunteers, many of whom credit Heidi with awakening their interest in conservation. Whether wielding a chainsaw or a pen, Heidi is a strong and pragmatic voice for the Blue Ridge Parkway. “It takes all of us to preserve it and protect it,” she says. “The parks are not funded efficiently anymore, and they’re very dependent on volunteers.”
Na’Taki Osborne-Jelks led the effort to revitalize the Outdoor Activity Center, an urban forest preserve in southwest Atlanta. From leading hikes to mobilizing a volunteer force of hundreds, Na’Taki has supplied the vision and leadership crucial to bringing the OAC back to life. She traces her passion for service back to her mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer after years living in an area of Louisiana home to more than 150 petrochemical plants. Her mother survived, but Na’Taki’s life changed course. “I started connecting those dots in college,” she told Atlanta Magazine. “I wanted to help communities avoid these kinds of environmental exposures.“
Marilyn Hanson retired from teaching biology in 1999—but she’s not the type to take it easy. Instead, she put on work gloves, picked up a shovel, and charged into the desert with the Sonoran Desert Weedwackers. This all-volunteer crew removes bufflegrass, an invasive weed threatening the delicate balance of the desert ecosystem. When Marilyn’s not out with the Weedwackers, she’s serving as a docent for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum or volunteering with the Arizona Native Plant Society. She’s a true defender of the desert.
To every volunteer in parks across the country: thank you. Do you know an unstoppable woman who’s making a difference for parks in your town? We want to hear about her! Leave us a comment, or join us on Facebook.
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