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Local Lives ... Audubon Fellow Abby Ybarra

A long memory is this environmental teacher’s key

Abby Ybarra with a tree he planted with second graders at Mt. Harmony Elementary School. He uses the tree was as an opportunity to teach the children to see it as more than just firewood. <<photo by Angela Worland>>

You probably don’t remember me, the 11th grader said, but I remember planting those trees at Mt. Harmony. Albert ‘Abby’ Ybarra, of Chesapeake Beach, tells this story with pride.
    It’s been nine years since Ybarra and a class of second graders planted those trees. Lasting memories like this is exactly what Ybarra hopes to achieve in his work with students and teachers to encourage environmental thinking in our next generation.
    In Calvert County — as in the Los Angeles school system, in the No Child Left Inside initiative in Washington, D.C., and in Project Indigenous — Ybarra works in a hands-on classroom, preferably outdoors, to teach the newest generations ways that are hundreds of years old for caring for the earth.
    His goal, he says, is to “reignite that innate connection” between people and the earth. In the younger grades, making the connection is easier and lasts longer.
    This month, as one of 40 newly minted Audubon fellows, Ybarra begins his project, Growing through Heritage, in Kansas. This work continues the concepts of Project Indigenous of reconnecting thru Native American culture. Using the $10,000 grant and the plans that earned him this fellowship, he’ll be teaching Native American students about their history and how their ancestors treated the environment.
    That’s a lesson Ybarra himself learned as far back as he can remember. Being connected with the earth was simply how his family, members of the Yaqui-Tohono O’Odham tribe, did things. He was raised by his grandparents in California and spent much time in New Mexico.
    His grandfather, a healer, took young Ybarra on his hunts for medicinal plants and herbs. His grandmother grew large gardens. Her three-sisters gardening — combining corn, squash and beans to promote growth and protection for each of the plants — is today’s companion gardening. Permaculture was a conscious way of life connecting back to the earth.
    With the young people of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi, Ybarra anticipates that much of his work will be reinforcing stories the kids have heard already. He hopes they’ll learn for the future and the past, taking their knowledge home to share with their parents, refreshing old memories, strengthening old connections.
    You don’t have to follow Ybarra to Kansas to try his lesson. “If you have children or grandchildren,” he advises, “listen to them about what they are learning in school. Instill a sense of wonder about nature and all living things.”

Editor’s note: Judy Mansfield’s Mt. Harmony Elementary School second graders wrote about their experiences with Ybarra in