HomeCommunityEnvironmental stewardship, inspiration takes lead inside Hilton Bialek Habitat

Environmental stewardship, inspiration takes lead inside Hilton Bialek Habitat

Published April 4, 2023

BY MINNA TROKEL

Since 2008, when MEarth first set foot in the Hilton Bialek Habitat right next to Carmel Middle School, the small nonprofit has been growing–food, connections and reach. 

Led by a core team of seven employees, the program hosts two yearly events for the public and numerous small events for students in Monterey County. The group, made up of program, executive and communications directors, three environmental educators and a property stewardship manager, work year-round to achieve the program’s founding mission: “To educate and inspire through environmental stewardship”–a sentiment echoed by all members of the staff.

“How I explain stewardship is a sense of belonging and a sense of action, and when you have the first sense, you get a sense of responsibility to take action,” says environmental stewardship educator Rachel Sutton. “Every program we do has a theme of this stewardship in it.” 

From teaching students about the local watershed to hands-on gardening and cooking, the MEarth staff work to connect the students back to the earth and the local environment, an aspect of MEarth that program director Rachel Buissereth thinks is vital to the operation.

“Education is the whole shebang,” says Buissereth. “Our field trips are fun and educational. Yes, you get to stick your hand in the dirt and plant seeds, but we also discuss where the dirt came from and what it means to the plants.”

Due to both the proximity of the habitat to CMS and the fact that MEarth only became separate from CUSD in around 2008, most of MEarth’s field trip time goes to CUSD students, middle schoolers especially. This ranges from “Friday farming” (weekly lessons on seasonal gardening) to cooking classes aligned with the CMS social studies courses.

The team of seven employees are mostly new to MEarth. (courtesy of LAURA MICHEL)

“Priority does go to CUSD students,” says executive director Karin Stratton. “Whatever days aren’t reserved for them get reserved for the other districts and programs.”

These districts and programs span the entirety of the county, including the local Boys & Girls Club. Many members of the team hope to expand this reach as far as possible, since they want to ensure everyone, regardless of location, has a chance to experience MEarth. 

“Kids can be kids at MEarth,” says Stratton. “They can learn things through nature and through using their hands, and I think that should be accessible to all.”

Despite expressed ambition in many aspects of growth, MEarth remains on the smaller side of nonprofits, which limits the program’s ability to host numerous public events and get more funding and exposure.

“When organizing events we have to make sure not to overwhelm ourselves too much,” says communications director Laura Michel, who executes the technical side of event planning.

Volunteers and local college students assist the core team in ensuring smooth operations by taking up smaller jobs around the 10-acre area, from harvesting seasonal produce to assisting with finances. 

“We’re a pretty small crew, but we are mighty,” says environmental stewardship educator Danny Kalke, who joined MEarth in September as the newest member.

Property stewardship manager Stewart Garnder tends to the garden with the assistance of volunteers and students. (courtesy of LAURA MICHEL)

Outside of the day-to-day routine of prepping for and hosting events, employees, interns and volunteers alike find joy just being in the habitat. For Kalke, this means wearing the unofficial hat of social media photographer.

“I like being part of a small nonprofit,” says Kalke. “Even though we’re a small group, we do this because we’re passionate about it.”

This passion comes out in how much thought and care goes into the numerous programs hosted at MEarth, from the locally loved Glass Pumpkin Patch to the summer day camp program. Each day is a new day for lesson planning and activities, and while the work can be tiring, it is equally rewarding. 

“MEarth is impactful and magical,” says Stratton. “Part of the impact comes from the magic, and it simply makes my heart sing.” 

The MEarth team is currently preparing to host MEarth Day on April 29 in celebration of Earth Day, with educational activities, a native plant sale and local performances from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Those interested in volunteering, sponsorship or eco-exhibitor opportunities can visit MEarthcarmel.org, or attend free of charge. 

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