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The Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center is a nature center that offers interactive exhibits, an interpretive loop, connections to the Rio Salado Habitat’s sixteen miles of hiking and riding trails and a variety of hands-on nature programs, including beginning birding classes and bird walks, school field trip programs and more.
Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center
3131 S. Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85040
Check out Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center opportunities at VolunteerMatch.
By Jesse Fineman
"Are there snakes?" "Will we get bitten?" "Ugh, there's a spider, kill it!" These are some of the things that Joy Dingley often hears from students at the start of their field trip to the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center.
"If you're lucky," she says, "by the time they have worked their way through the program they will have stopped worrying about snakes, forgotten insect bites, and will quite happily be handling mud, owl pellets, and all the small wiggly creatures we can capture."
Joy is a Teacher Naturalist Assistant at the Audubon Center, which sits in a lush 600-acre restoration area along the Salt Lake River just two miles outside of downtown Phoenix. A big part of her job is giving urban youth the chance to explore the 16 miles of hiking trails, spot some of the 200 bird species and wildlife there, and gain a greater appreciation of nature.
Aside from the beautiful scenery, what Joy cherishes most are the moments that show how much this opportunity means to the students. She recalls on particularly long day. One boy in particularly had been acting up a lot, chasing away the wildlife. At the end of the tour, suddenly he ran to catch up with her.
"You know, Miss," he said, "It was great stroking those dead animals."
It wasn't how Joy and the rest of the staff would normally refer to the specimens of animal pelts, but she knew what the boy meant. He looked over the river banks for a moment, assessing what he saw. He was quiet for a minute or two as if he was weighing something in his mind.
"This place is really neat," he finally said. "This has been the best field trip we've ever been on, ever."
Joy has been involved with the Audubon Center since it opened in October, 2009 sharing her love of bird watching and the outdoors. Like all volunteers, Joy has a knack for thinking of others and looking at the world through the eyes of her students. For many, the experiences they have will last their entire lives.
"The three hours they spend exploring the Rio Salado habitat may be the most time they spend in nature all year," she says. "Maybe only five out of every hundred children we see will come back, [and] maybe only one in every two hundred will become truly involved in environmental activities. Butthat's still six more children than would have been possible if there weren't volunteers to help the staff at the Center."
Joy has been a life-long nature enthusiast. As a young girl growing up in a small village in England, she remembers taking nature walks with her Girl Scout Troop. Looking back, she sees that she needed someone to encourage her to go on these excursions.
Already in the 1950s and ‘60s, the landscape was changing. Pastures gave way to industrial machinery and construction to restore the housing stock after World War II, and the countryside was no longer at her doorstep.
"This disconnect from the natural world wasn't something I noticed at the time," she says, and without these naturalists and Brownie leaders, she would never have discovered her love of nature.
Now, she wants to provide this same service to children today. Working at a school in the UK for 17 years, Joy gained a sense of what helps children learn.
Her history as a committed volunteer started in her thirties, when she joined bird-watching groups. Soon, she found herself organizing rummage sales, selling bird-watching cataloguing goods, and conducting guided tours for beginners.
At the Audubon Center she held the Education Chair position for four years, and now runs a monthly ornithology club for children, in addition to helping supervise field trips and after-school programs.
For Joy, it is important to volunteer doing something she loves. She has been able to deepen her knowledge and learn more about the Salt River ecosystem thanks to the friendship and guidance of the staff. "They have taught me about pollinators, nonpoint source pollution, mammals in Arizona and the history of the Salt River," she says comfortably, but you don't need to be an expert to be a volunteer.
On the last day of one of the Center's education programs, Joy remembers one young boy looking anxious. He was examining a bookmark they had handed out. He couldn't believe that he could come back anytime he wanted to, for free.
"I can't think of a better way of spending your time than helping keep a place like Arizona Audubon open as long as possible, to as many as possible," she says.
Jesse Fineman was an Communications & Social Media intern at VolunteerMatch.