Nancy Carlson didn’t have a lot of opportunity to connect with nature growing up in a suburb of Chicago. So when her family would visit Wisconsin she immersed herself in it.
“I would hunt for tadpoles and frogs in the streams in Wisconsin,” she recalled. “I realized the natural world was the place I felt at peace and came alive. I think those adventures is what planted the seed for me to be an advocate of the natural world.”
Carlson, now the naturalist educator at Hawthorn Hollow Nature Sanctuary and Arboretum in Somers, began sharing her passion for nature with children at Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg.
She became a citizen-based water monitor for the state Department of Natural Resources, got involved with the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee and is a leader for the state of Wisconsin Sierra Club Water Sentinels and Wisconsin Water Action Volunteers organizations.
Her curiosity traveled from streams and rivers to Lake Michigan, a resource she said she feels compelled to help protect.
It led her to southeastern Wisconsin, where she created the WATERshed Program 11 years ago.
In partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the city of Racine, Hawthorn Hollow and Southport Beach Park, Carlson secured grants from Wisconsin Coastal Management, Funds for Lake Michigan and other partners, to cover the full cost of bringing Racine Unified School District fourth-graders to the Root River Environmental Education Community Center and Kenosha Unified School District fifth-graders to Southport Beach, to learn how to be good stewards of the world’s largest freshwater resource.
“It is surprising to me the number of local school children who have never been to Lake Michigan,” Carlson said. “They come thinking Lake Michigan is the ocean and there are sharks swimming out there.”
At Southport Beach, students study the connection between the wetlands, the dune and the lake, conduct water quality and clarity testing and explore the ecosystems.
“You can go to three different ecosystems within 100 yards of each other,” Carlson said. “We literally walk and watch the sand turn to clay along the path. So it’s very cool.”
Since its inception, more than 25,000 students from the two-county area have participated in the program, the goal of which is to help create “water literate citizens” who understand the importance of keeping the watershed system healthy and safe for plants, animals and people.
For her efforts to connect students with the Great Lakes, Carlson was recently named a 2019 Champion of Conservation by the Lake Michigan Stakeholders. Her unique ability to inspire youth to become active environmental citizens was noted during the awards ceremony.
“Nancy is a wonderful naturalist and is adored within the Racine and Kenosha community by youth and adults alike,” an excerpt from the award program reads. “Her passion for the environment and her natural ability to connect with kids makes her an ideal person to be leading environmental education programs.”
For Carlson, 56, even better than receiving the award was hearing at the ceremony that one of the new water scientists hired by Funds for Lake Michigan took part in the WATERshed program.
“It really choked me up,” Carlson said, adding her hope is that students leave the river bank or lake shore feeling a responsibility to protect these resources and motivated to take action.
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