Master Naturalists Connect Environment in Whitemarsh and Beyond

Master Naturalists discuss program upcoming at Schuylkill Center.

Nobody does interconnectivity like Pennsylvania Master Naturalists.

“Everything is connected," the health of our streams, birds, insects, rain, weeds, parks, roads, geology of the watersheds, according to Janet Boys of Mt. Airy, a certified Master Naturalist since 2010. “Everybody lives downstream from somebody else." 

Boys calls herself a lifelong learner, and a “vibrant 62.” She has been instrumental in creating a rain garden as a method of stormwater management in the Vernon Park Improvement Project in Germantown. By channeling rain water off impervious surfaces and into soil lush with appropriate plantings, Philadelphia citizens can minimize the terrible pollution that takes place when excess storm water disrupts and overrides sanitary sewage treatment.

Available throughout the commonwealth, volunteer training courses for southeastern Pennsylvania are held at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough. This spring course opens the door to natural connections.

“Everything we do has an impact on the environment,” said Sachiyo Searles, a Master Naturalist and former Peace Corps worker. “For every action, there’s a reaction.” The retired Philadelphia school counselor is now active in restoration projects for Koontz Park, Whitemarsh Township (Montgomery County) and in the Schuylkill Center’s promotion of the role of native plants in the region. 

“Awe, wonder and inspirational aspects of nature” are the most powerful connections, which retired Water Department engineer, John Vencius of Chestnut Hill makes from his training as a Master Naturalist. Vencius, who also enjoys mountain biking and brewing beer, is a Trail Ambassador for Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW). He uses opportunities as Trail Ambassador to share his growing knowledge of natural history and environmental stewardship with the public and to help lead other volunteers. 

Pennsylvania Master Naturalist designation achieved by Vencius, Boys and Searles follows an intensive training program administered by the Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education(PICE) and its many partner organizations. Partners include, among others, the Academy of Natural Sciences, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Natural Lands Trust, EPA, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Morris Arboretum, the Schuylkill Center, and Philadelphia Horticultural Society.

What Does a Master Naturalist Do?

The mission of the Pennsylvania Master Naturalist program is to expand the capacity and outreach of community environmental organizations, promoting greater public awareness and appreciation of all citizens’ roles in conserving the ecosystems with which they interact. 

Participants attend an intensive period of field trips and natural science classes (taught by professors and experts in the region), and complete a certain amount of volunteer service and continuing education. 

Master Naturalists agree that the training is quite rigorous in terms of the information presented over about 17 sessions. “It’s enough to make your head spin,” said Vencius, despite his own science and nature background. 

Yet participants come away with binders, flash drives, contacts and access to some of the richest resources in the region. 

“It has been a privilege, actually,” Searles said. She added that the training included transportation to sites and field study that would not otherwise have been accessible to most individuals. The multidisciplinary approach ensures topics to fit every interest, she emphasized. 

“It’s an eye opener in so many ways,” Boys said. She came into the program with a passion for water, and her work as a Pennsylvania Master Naturalist has enhanced her ability to make a difference. For example, she has been learning the importance of biodiversity (range of organisms within an environment) – as opposed to a monoculture – in contributing to the viability and sustainability of a region. That robust foundation is one reason why over thirty different kinds of plants “which can stand having wet feet” are used in the Vernon Park’s rain garden. 

Working With the Public

In addition to environmental sciences, Master Naturalists learn to organize vast amounts of knowledge and communicate effectively with a diverse public. Specific activities of Master Naturalists vary: some might present slide shows to groups; some lead weed walks to collect seeds for planting meadows; others might answer questions and consult about shaping backyard habitats.

One of Sanchiyo Searles’ projects was to compile and share recipes for making safe, natural, home cleaning products. Boys is educating communities about Green Cities programs, including tree planting campaigns and measures that each property owner can take to reduce flooding from stormwater.

John Vencius observes and reports back to FOW on the conditions of park resources, and helps visitors appreciate what’s around them. He recounted two different occasions in which he intervened to facilitate the rescue of park visitors who had medical emergencies.

Become One

The application process is underway for the 2012 Pennsylvania Master Naturalist programs. 

“It’s neat to meet the other people in the program,” said Vencius. “It’s a great education.”

Searles agreed. She remains in contact with her classmates. An additional benefit, she noted, is that they have created additional new communities around environmental sustainability.

Being a Master Naturalist and contributing to Philadelphia’s greening process is “one of the stars in my life,” added Janet Boys.


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