A group of students gathered in a circle at Jones Beach State Park. As the sun beat down, Marissa DeBonis, environmental educator assistant at the Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center, showed the group the sea snails and hermit crabs that were caught earlier that day during a beach seining activity at the park’s West End Boat Basin, where two people held a large net and slowly walked along the shoreline, catching aquatic species.
This is just one of many activities that local kids are taking part in this summer at the third annual Nassau County Marine Camp Program, a partnership among Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County; the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation; New York Sea Grant and the nature center.
The program, which focuses on underserved youth, got its start in Nassau in 2018, after CCE Nassau was approached by New York Sea Grant, a state-operated grant program with locations on Long Island.
“We want to get these kids from underserved communities out to the beach environment so they can start experiencing these new things,” CCE Nassau’s natural resource program manager Michael Fiorentino said. “The focus of the program has always been on hands-on experience and experimental learning opportunities.”
Eight groups of students from across the county will participate in the program, which runs until Aug. 12. Each group will stop by the nature center twice a week, and from there head out in the field to learn about coastal marine life and the environment. For example, they will inspect wildlife and study coastal erosion on the ocean side, and analyze marshes and discuss coastal drifts on the bay side, Fiorentino said.
The program is open to all applicants, but organizers rely on connections with the Nassau County Office of Youth Services and local nonprofits tied to the county to find most of the participants. Roughly 250 children come through the program each summer, Fiorentino said. This year, coronavirus precautions are established by group leaders based on their members and their needs, and the groups are slightly smaller.
The third annual program kicked off outside the Nature Center on July 22. The first group of campers were from My Brother’s Keeper Hempstead, a local chapter of the national organization which aims to improve life for boys and young men of color. Those students are enrolled at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in the Hempstead School District.
New York Sea Grant Director Rebecca Shuford said the camp was conceived in 2016 by Sea Grant staff. The program has given students “hands-on, science-based experiences of a lifetime,” Shuford said.
George Gorman, regional director of New York State Parks, said the camp is “hopefully the first of many partnerships” that will be hosted at the Energy and Nature Center, which opened last September. At the time, public events were impossible, the center’s director and chief curator, Jeanne Haffner, said at the kickoff ceremony. That made the event “very special for all of our staff,” Haffner said.
In the past, program organizers have found it difficult to transport kids to Jones Beach, Fiorentino said.
This year, Gorman explained, the Nature Center qualified for financial reimbursement through New York state’s Connect-Kids-to-Parks Field Trip Grant Program. The grants provide reimbursement of up to $40 per student for field trips to state and federal parks, forests, historic sites, fish hatcheries and outdoor recreation areas. Each group of campers determined their transportation costs, and the Nature Center was able to cover them.
Doron Spleen, a Cornell Cooperative Extension board member and president of Hempstead-based Morrison Mentors, an organization that works with kids in and out of the classroom, will lead one group of campers this year. “I’m excited to see you guys getting into it,” he told the first group of roughly 40 campers at the kickoff. “I’m looking forward to the lives that we will impact today. I’m looking forward to being back on the bus with you all — and see who’s going to become a marine scientist.”
Fiorentino said he hoped the program would inspire students to be enthusiastic about marine biology. “We always talk about this concept called sparks: that’s this first approach or interaction with an activity that sparks their interest,” he said. “From there, stems a whole new direction they can go in. For us, the goal is to spark that interest.”