This year the Odum School of Ecology’s student-run environmental outreach program, EcoReach, is working with its first ever AmeriCorps VISTA member Mackenzie Teeter. Only a few months into Mackenzie’s year-long assignment, EcoReach is already benefiting from her dedication and consistent involvement in the organization.
“Mackenzie is a rockstar, she is incredibly organized and very motivated,” said EcoReach coordinator Julie Blaze, “She keeps the flow of the organization really moving.”
The AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) program works to strengthen communities across the country by sending qualified full-time volunteers like Mackenzie to help local organizations to expand their impact. Daniel Suh, EcoReach’s treasurer, had previously worked with AmeriCorps and was able to apply for a program volunteer through the University of Georgia AmeriCorps VISTA network.
Mackenzie also had a history working for AmeriCorps, having completed a year-long service program in Alaska and California after high school. Following her graduation from Iowa State University she joined the VISTA program, which allowed her to choose a project based on her specific interests. Mackenzie’s passion for the environment, science, and working with kids led her to EcoReach at UGA, where she began putting her experience in leadership, volunteer organization, and running environmental programs to use this past January.
For the past few months, Mackenzie has been working hard to assist EcoReach in their mission to inspire environmental awareness and stewardship in the communities around UGA. The organization operates through the work of ecologists, undergraduates, and graduate students who develop and employ programs, outreach projects, and fundraisers that support STEM education for K-12 students. As an AmeriCorps VISTA member, Mackenzie’s role in EcoReach involves organizing, planning events, recruiting volunteers, and collaborating with other organizations both on and off campus.
“Everyone that I’m working with, all of the officers of EcoReach, they’re just incredible people who are really amazing and have a really great organization. The work has been really nice,” said Mackenzie.
During COVID, EcoReach managed to continue connecting with the community through a number of virtual activities and presentations. Their “Backyard Critters” project, launched in March 2021, prompted students to share pictures of organisms they encountered, which would be followed by a team member’s response with fun facts and details about the organism and its ecosystem. During Spring 2022, EcoReach has begun to ramp back up their in-person events.
Mackenzie recently worked with the Hall Lab at UGA to put on an educational booth called “Plentiful Parasites” for Georgia Questival, a children’s program at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. In April, EcoReach is hosting a booth at the Wetlands Family Day open house with the Jefferson County School District, where they will share knowledge and educational materials about wetland health and species.
Mackenzie and members of EcoReach are also participating in the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society’s “Binoculars for Young Black Birders” project. In 2020, Ecoreach members helped ORAS and the Lilly Branch Audubon Society distribute over 130 “binobags” of binoculars and educational materials to promote birding among Black students in Athens-Clarke County. The next round of this effort, starting soon, aims to raise $10,000 to provide class sets for local elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, as well as other educational groups like summer camps, and will provide additional classroom and event programming for students.
Mackenzie said that “Binoculars for Young Black Birders” has been one of the most enjoyable projects so far.
“Being able to connect with those teachers has been really nice because they’re so thankful for the donors. I think it’s just a really cool initiative,” she said.
EcoReach is continuously expanding, and this year the inclusion of undergraduate students has allowed them to plan more events and activities over the summer. They’re currently working with the Athens-Clarke County Library on after summer school programs related to pollinators and marine biology. The pollinator program was specifically requested, and the EcoReach team is working on activities and resources to teach students about the importance and diversity of pollinators, and what they can do within their community to help conserve them.
EcoReach focuses on meeting the community’s needs by collaborating with other organizations. As their AmeriCorps VISTA, Mackenzie has played a large role in fostering existing partnerships, such as with the ACC library, as well as expanding their network. In the past three months EcoReach has developed five new partnerships, and continues to grow.
“EcoReach is very passionate about our partnerships with different community groups and our partnerships with classrooms,” said Blaze. “We’re collaboration-driven in that way.”
Not only does this cooperation allow for opportunities to spread knowledge of environmental and ecological issues, but it also provides a chance for UGA students and faculty to connect with the community around them and practice communicating scientific concepts. This year, with the addition of an AmeriCorps VISTA member, EcoReach is even more equipped to bridge the gap between the academic world within UGA and the outside community.
“It’s been really enjoyable. I love the people I’m working with, I love the work we’re doing, and I’m excited for what the future brings,” Mackenzie said.