A local nonprofit has received national recognition for its volunteer efforts in educating local school children about nature and the outdoors.
The Friends of Whitfield received the 2018 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service National Earth Team Award and the West Regional Award.
The National Earth Team Award recognizes one outstanding volunteer group nationally.
“We were surprised; we had no idea we were nominated,” said Eileen Beaulieu, Friends board member.
Pearl Armijo, the district conservationist for the NRCS Field Office in Los Lunas, nominated the group, Beaulieu said.
Founded in 2008, Friends of Whitfield is dedicated to supporting the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area in the conservation of wildlife and habitats through environmental education, research and restoration.
As an independent, nonprofit corporation, the Friends group can purchase equipment, volunteer man hours and host programs at Whitfield, which is owned and operated by the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation.
In the past year, the Friends have volunteered 1,800 hours, with a total in-kind value of $42,000. Not only has the Friends held conservation events at Whitfield, but the group has volunteered consistently for NRCS at the Los Lunas Service Center and throughout Valencia County.
Every month, the group sends its volunteer hours worked to Armijo, who can use the hours on in-kind work as matching “funds” for grant applications, said Friends member Linda Heinze.
“The most important thing we do is encourage education,” said Beaulieu.
With a mission of education first, Beverly McFarland said the group works hard to connect local youth with nature.
“We raise money to pay for the buses to get them here, the science kits for teachers to use in their classrooms,” McFarland said. “One of our most popular fundraisers is the one we do with the Tomé Art Gallery where we raffle off the Leopold benches.”
Friends member Ron Goens built a small gift kiosk at the Whitfield education center, which opened in 2009, stocked with T-shirts, artwork, jewelry and books for sale to support the Friends mission
Heinze encourages anyone with an interest in the outdoors and nature to become involved with the Friends organization.
“You don’t have to be an ‘expert’ on wildlife or biology,” she said. “We’re just people who love the outdoors.”
For the last five years, the Friends have hosted an Earth Day celebration at Whitfield. Throughout the year, they hold regular nature walks through the conservation area, conduct outdoor conservation classroom events, host keynote speakers at the center, all of which are free to the community.
For information about the Friends of Whitfield, visit friendsofwhitfield.org, or call 864-8914 to find out how to become a member.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.