Giving Green

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From the coves to the canyon, Laguna Beach’s eco-friendly nonprofits 
offer a variety of unique opportunities for volunteers.

By Connie K. Ho

With clear blue skies, rolling hills and sparkling oceans, Laguna Beach is the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature. In honor of Earth Day on April 22, explore a local organization or event committed to preserving Laguna’s pristine landscape—diverse options, such as removing invasive plants, leading hikes and educating visitors about the tide pools, ensure that there’s something for everyone.


Maintain the Community Garden

Tomatoes, grapes, leafy greens—these are just a few of the fruits and vegetables you’ll see at the South Laguna Community Garden Park. Operated by the South Laguna Civic Association, the community garden is a volunteer-run initiative that gives locals the opportunity to grow produce, flowers and more.

“A side benefit of the garden is that when people come to plant and water and take care of their garden and meet other like-minded people, turns out you grow friendships that far exceed anything that has to do with the garden,” says Bill Rihn, vice president of the South Laguna Civic Association and a member of the group’s garden committee. “It’s like an old-fashioned barn-raising.”

South Laguna Community Garden Park, operated by the South Laguna Civic Association

The garden park was established a little over six years ago with some seed money from the South Laguna Civic Association. Today, it boasts more than 50 planter boxes and a small shed. For those interested in volunteering, the group regularly has days where it works on removing weeds and Bermuda grass. Tools like spades and rakes are provided for those who help. In the afternoon, after sprucing up the garden, individuals are invited to stay for refreshments—an outdoor picnic of sorts, where attendees share dishes ranging from tamales to cheese and crackers.

For Bill, the community garden park is a vital green space: “It’s good for the environment in the sense that, for every vegetable that someone grows, it doesn’t have to be transported from the San Joaquin Valley or Florida or some place, which means less fuel consumption and less carbon products in the atmosphere and so forth.”


Remove Invasive Plants at the Park

Crystal Cove Alliance (CCA), the nonprofit partner of Crystal Cove State Park, offers citizen science programs related to the park’s 3.2 miles of coastline, its backcountry as well as the Michael and Tricia Berns Environmental Study Loop. Through these initiatives, the group aims to get people involved in protecting the region’s open spaces; it has worked with participants ranging from Brownie troop members to retirees. Many of the events hosted by CCA are one-time programs where people can volunteer for a few hours.

Mustard is one of the invasive plants that volunteers help remove in Crystal Cove State Park.

“A lot of people aren’t just helping with conservation efforts or participating in education programs; they’re actually helping to collect data that’s going to be used to make decisions on how best to manage Crystal Cove State Park,” says Sara Ludovise, CCA’s education manager.

One of the events organized by CCA, called Get Out the Mustard, began in 2014. In this pilot program, volunteers from corporations and the community helped remove the invasive mustard in Crystal Cove State Park. The organization provided equipment and demonstrated how to remove the plants, and then the 100-plus volunteers successfully filled nearly 130 trash bags with them. This year, CCA plans to expand the experiential initiative to include park maintenace, carpentry, painting and other interactive projects.

CCA2-credit Crystal Cove Alliance
A CCA volunteer helps remove brassica from the park.

Roommates Rachel Pennington, a biological sciences major at UC Irvine (UCI) and Mackenzie Peich, an ecology and evolutionary biology student at UCI, began volunteering with CCA two years ago.

“There are so many things that each individual of a community can do to help our environment and to live sustainably,” Rachel says. “This whole experience has solidified my belief in the importance of informal … science education, something I never thought about previously.”

For Mackenzie, the experience has opened her eyes to new career possibilities.“One of the coolest things about this organization is how much they focus on education,” she says. “Once everyone is educated on the subject … it makes it that much easier to solve it.”


Host Hikes at Nix Nature Center

With lawn chairs inviting visitors to sit and view the idyllic setting and painted murals illustrating the lush landscape, the James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages. Those looking to share their passion for the area should consider volunteering with the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF), a partner of the award-winning Nix Nature Center that’s dedicated to preserving, protecting and enhancing the South Coast Wilderness area.

Center volunteers greet visitors, help them plan their hikes—suggesting routes based on level of difficulty, weather and other factors—and provide emergency assistance when needed. They also lead birding and wildflower hikes, or hikes in the hills. These expeditions reflect the volunteers’ interests and passions, with some discussing favorite books or even incorporating yoga sessions.

Volunteers also participate in public programs like the quarterly Weekend at the Nix Center, which invites local wildlife experts to share their knowledge and lead activities. Previous events have included digging for fossils and identifying rocks and minerals.

NixNatureCenter2-credit Connie K. Ho
Nix Nature Center volunteers discuss various trail paths with visitors before they embark on hikes.

In order to partake in the program, volunteers are required to be CPR-certified and complete a rigorous training process to ensure they are equipped to answer questions that might come up at the center. In terms of age requirements, volunteers must be at least 16 years old; however, exceptions can sometimes be made if children volunteer at the center with a parent.

Irvine resident Karen Anderson has volunteered with the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Nix Nature Center for the past five years. During that time, she has met people from all over North America—from Colorado to Canada. For Karen, it’s important to emphasize how visitors can enjoy and respect the grounds while not disturbing the environment.

“When we take people out or when we help them with maps, we always educate people and tell them not to go off the trails,” she says. “If they do, then they’re trampling on the foliage and so forth out there, so we make sure they understand.”


 Educate Visitors at the Tide Pools

Christine Montonna, a North Laguna resident, loves the beauty of the ocean. With an interest in learning about the tide pools near her home, she applied to volunteer as a TideWater Docent with the Laguna Ocean Foundation (LOF), a nonprofit that protects and preserves the local beaches, ocean water, intertidal zone and watersheds.

During her nearly two years of volunteering, Christine has been able to introduce both locals and tourists to the many plants and animals living in the tide pools, handing out colorful brochures with pictures of different types of sea creatures. She has also reported two injured sea lions that were in need of rescue so that the appropriate organization could assist. With these experiences under her belt, Christine considers herself an ambassador for the tide pools.

LB Indy_Jeremy Frimond_Marine Protection_By Jody Tiongco-10“Whenever I’m in the tide pool area, just looking at the ocean and watching the wave action and the sun—it’s such a spectacular beautiful setting that is always very gratifying,” she says. “Then to have people come into that beautiful setting and to feel that I have things that I can share with them and make them feel welcome and heighten their pleasure, I think those two things are the most rewarding aspects for me.”

Christine is one of more than 80 individuals who volunteer as TideWater Docents under the LOF. In Laguna, they can work at locations such as Goff Island, Wood’s Cove, Shaw’s Cove and Crescent Bay. Wearing a TideWater Docent shirt and LOF badge, with brochures in hand, volunteers act as on-site resources year-round.

Tidepool2-credit Connie K. Ho
Laguna Ocean Foundation has more than 80 TideWater Docents, individuals who remain on-site at local tide pools to answer questions about plants and sea life.

According to LOF TideWater Docent coordinator Letty Skeen, there are a few requirements for individuals who want to join the docent team: All must be at least 18 years old and commit to volunteering a minimum of one three-hour shift each month. They are also required to complete a two-hour interpretative class followed by six hours of training on-site at the tide pools prior to signing up for their first shift.


Take Trash off the Streets

Laguna resident Chip McDermott was fed up with the trash and cigarette butts littering the local sidewalks and streets. Seeing too few trash cans in town and along Coast Highway, he decided to take action, launching ZeroTrash in 2007. ZeroTrash has grown from the flagship Laguna Beach location into a number of different chapters and, over the years, has worked in cities including Chico, Dana Point, Newport Beach, San Diego and Rancho Santa Margarita.

With ZeroTrash, volunteers meet to clean up trash and recyclables in the community. They convene at a central location and then fan out to collect garbage from the beach, streets, parks and gutters.

“Trash talks” teach students about reducing waste.

Those interested in volunteering with ZeroTrash can attend one of the cleanup days from 10 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of each month. Equipment, including trash bags and pickers, are provided.

Local volunteer meet-up locations include Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant, Laguna Beach High School, Thalia Surf Shop and United Studios of Self Defense. To date, ZeroTrash participants have taken more than 150,000 pounds of trash off Laguna’s streets; they recently removed 167 pounds in one month alone.

Founder Chip McDermott launched ZeroTrash in 2007 after growing tired of seeing litter on his city’s streets.

The organization also has partnerships with businesses; for example, Thalia and Avila’s give discounts on goods and food, respectively, for those dressed in a ZeroTrash red T-shirt.

Not only does ZeroTrash host garbage pick-up days, it works to prevent litter from winding up on the streets in the first place, advocating for local governments to provide more vessels for recycling, trash and cigarette butt disposal. The organization also conducts educational programs at schools called “trash talks.” These hands-on assemblies teach students about the importance of reducing waste through proper recycling and composting.

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