Ximena Gil grew up in Highland Park, a densely populated area near downtown Los Angeles. When she talks about her childhood in this urban area folded right alongside the Pasadena Freeway, she notes how she had little exposure to nature. Ximena says that one day, her older brother convinced her to take a walk down the street to the fence that divided their neighborhood from Ernest E. Debs Park. They hopped the fence together, and were instantly transported to another world.
Ximena says she returned over and over during the course of her life. When Audubon built its Audubon Center at Debs Park she started visiting even more often. Seven years ago began to volunteer there. Five years ago, she became an employee, providing inspiration for kids like herself to get exposure to nature.
Ximena Gil speaks on Thursday night (photo by Martha Benedict).
Debs Park is the fourth biggest park in the City of Los Angeles, but it is no surprise that 10 years ago it was still a foreign place to the children and families of Highland Park. Sure, there was that fence, but there was also crime in the park and a lot of decay. Moreover, there weren’t the type of programs that might draw in the families of the 40,000 kids that lived within a one-mile radius of the park.
It was about 10 years ago that the National Audubon Society had the idea to put a nature center in an inner city. Of all the sites around the country, they picked Los Angeles, specifically Highland Park, and more specifically Debs Park. On opening day, members of the community walked up the hill with a mariachi band and opened the gates for the first time.
Ten years and lot of hard work later, the center provides an outdoor education space for 20,000 kids a year. A group of area teens called the Arroyo Green Team are learning to be community conservation leaders, driving local conservation projects and helping teach their younger counterparts in the neighborhood.
Last night, 130 people gathered in the center’s moonlit courtyard to celebrate those first 10 years. Ximena told her inspirational story, and so did one of the younger kids she has inspired, an Arroyo Green Team member named Jesusdaniel. He too grew up in Highland Park, and he also had little access to outdoors. But unlike Ximena, he had the opportunity to visit the Audubon Center at Debs Park. And he told the audience of his great joy in volunteering his spare time to help younger kids experience and enjoy nature.
Both Ximena and Jesusdaniel can name all the resident birds in the park.
The evening reached its crescendo with a surprise announcement from Wes Craven – the motion picture director and producer who you probably know from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and other films. Wes is a long time birder and lover of nature. He has a deep belief in our collective responsibility to ensure all children have access to the outdoors and birds. Inspired by Ximena’s story, he stood up and challenged the audience to tear down those fences. He encouraged the young people in the audience to hop those fences. “What more in life can we do,” he asked.
His question made me stop and ask myself if I’m doing enough to provide opportunities for the next generation of nature lovers, bird lovers, and future leaders of California.
What are you doing?