Kayin Bankole is learning how to connect the community to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, where he is a summer fellow. On a recent Wednesday, Bankole had finished up with a group who had kayaked in the Darby Creek, which flows through the Tinicum Marsh at the Refuge.

Growing up in South Philadelphia, a block away from the Refuge — located at 8601 Lindbergh Blvd., and close to the Philadelphia International Airport — Bankole remembers visiting the center as a child, but now he’s really learning to appreciate what the Refuge is all about.

“I have learned about marshes and certain wildlife,” said Bankole, a junior studying environmental engineering at Syracuse University. “(The marsh) acts like a human kidney. It filters out pollutants from the rest of the eco-system.”

About 25 minutes away from the Refuge, Joshua Pringle is spending his summer at Fairmount Water Works where he is helping to spread awareness about one of the city’s first water pumping station’s.

“We’re learning about the watershed in general; the Delaware and the Schuylkill” said Pringle who has led tours at the museum for summer camps. “There’s a lot of history in this city. I’m also trying to improve my communication skills.”

Pringle and Bankole are among a cohort of 23 paid summer fellows assigned to environmental education centers in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey to increase awareness of the importance of the Delaware River watershed, which provides drinking water for millions of people.

The collaborative effort, the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, is hosting a participant between the ages of 18-24 to manage community outreach and programs at each of the centers where they focus on communities that are under-served and underrepresented, providing them with ways to enjoy and care for their local river or stream.

The initiative is funded through $4.6 million from the William Penn Foundation and helps to target people of diverse ages and backgrounds to explore and enjoy waterways within the Delaware River watershed.

“We’re excited about the potential for the Alliance for Watershed Education to enable each of these 23 environmental centers to even more effectively reach the thousands of people who already participate in their excellent local programs,” said Andrew Johnson, watershed protection program director for the William Penn Foundation, in a statement. “In addition, because of their location on the Circuit Trails, these centers also have an opportunity to engage thousands of people who use the trails along many of our rivers and streams in programming, building a new constituency for protection of clean water among these outdoor enthusiasts.”

Reaching the community

Refuge Manager Lamar Gore has been working with Bankole since the 12-week fellowship began in June.

“The Alliance has allowed stewards to come here,” said Gore, while providing a tour of the Refuge. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids who grew up in the area to learn more about the places they grew up and then share that with others in the community and with visitors as well.”

The Refuge provides fishing, kayaking, canoeing, wildlife viewing and environmental education. The marsh, a freshwater tidal wetland, is protected by the Refuge.

“How do we make this Refuge more a part of the community as opposed to it being an adjunct of the community?,” Gore posed. “We came up with a whole plan that has three parts — through community engagement, environmental education and breaking down transportation barriers.”

Gore has taken Bankole to community meetings where the Refuge was discussed.

“He’s gotten to see some of things that go on at the community meetings,” said Gore. “I believe 100 percent that the most important thing we can do is build a relationship with the community and that means trust building.”

A big obstacle is familiarizing residents with the Refuge and the Fairmount Water Works. Fairmount Water Works is a free museum located behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Boat House Row at 640 Waterworks Drive. The designation was constructed to provide safe, clean drinking water and is a National Historic Landmark.

“Some people don’t realize we’re here,” said Tarsha Scovens, Pringle’s supervisor. “The Alliance for Watershed Education is really aiming to have the next generation become a voice to help protect, engage and advocate for our waterways to external communities that aren’t visiting or aren’t connecting with the river.”

At the end of the fellowship in August, the participants are required to complete a Capstone Project and present their work. Pringle, who says his interest includes meteorology, plans to conduct a survey with those that run, bicycle, or pass by and have no clue about the museum.

“I want to find out how we can attract and interest them,” Pringle said. “They go right by it, and they don’t don’t even realize that we’re here and we’re a free museum. My goal is to get as much information about them as possible so hopefully next year’s fellows can take that information and develop a strategy for outreach.”

Bankole says he hasn’t decided upon his final project, but he’s leaning toward creating a bike guide for visitors to travel the trail or a report on the fish species found at the Refuge.

“I’m actually from here, and I can see how this place is changing,” said Bankole. “For me it’s like coming full circle. The Refuge provides land, space, protection and filtration.”

For more information about the Alliance for Watershed Education, visit watershedalliance.org.

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