“Sparrow!” That’s what the three Audubon Youth Leaders exclaimed as they approached a piling about 6 feet away from their kayak. Casey Arndt, Engagement and Operations Manager at Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Tiburon, started laughing at that exclamation.
She was on Richardson Bay with three youth, who were kayaking for the first time. They had been practicing bird ID skills and learning about the bay for months, they had their “binos” at the ready and she thought they had it down. So, when the three young women mistook the Osprey as a sparrow, Casey laughed and told them it was an Osprey, it became a running joke in the group for several months. For Casey, however, the takeaway was that the youth were excited to see and attempt to ID their first bird, they’d connected to nature and each other.
At the root of Arndt’s work is a deep desire to connect people to nature and a belief that the connection can help people find their way and build community. She is particularly proud of the work she’s done to engage diverse and underserved communities and youth in at risk situations.
Through training and mentorship with the National Inclusion Project, Richardson Bays’ engagement programs are now inclusive for youth of all abilities. The school year component of the Audubon Youth Leaders (AYL) program provides opportunities for Youth Leaders from seven participating high schools to attend weekly after school sessions and monthly weekend environmental science, leadership development, and stewardship activities.
Arndt's own connection to conservation started when she was a toddler watching boreal chickadees with her mom. She grew up with a deep connection to the outdoors, birding and conservation with two biologists as parents in a small Athabascan Alaskan village. She found her way to working in conservation as a career after a stint as a volunteer firefighter in Seward and 10 years of working with youth in formal and informal environmental education settings.
One reason she feels she is able to connect with the youth she works with is that she doesn’t fit their idea of someone who works in conservation. She says this allows them to think outside the box and understand that they don’t have to fit a certain mold to be a conservationist.
Being outdoors give the youth she works with a safe place to open up and share with each other. While digging holes to plant for restoration projects the group bonds and works through complicated issues, stresses at home, addiction issues and more. There is a lot of time to share while planting 700 grass seedlings, and a huge sense of accomplishment when it is done.
Arndt told us, "Conservation has a place for everyone. My job is to engage with people and help them find their path in conservation—that doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a scientist or GIS analyst, but that they have found a way to have conservation in their lives and pass it on."