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Changing for the Better

Early on a recent Sunday morning near Kids’ Cove at Mount Trashmore Park, a father and his young son heard children’s music and spotted a group of children in red t-shirts shaking maracas. The father stopped at a table to find out what was going on.

The gathering was a peaceful family “play-in” sponsored by the local chapter of Moms Clean Air Force to raise awareness about climate change. A member explained that the group was celebrating the environment and calling on local lawmakers to support cleaner resources for our region. The father signed up to receive more information, and his son happily joined in the festivities with the other kids.

All over the country, families are taking action to protect and preserve our environment. National organizations like Moms Clean Air Force and Surfrider Foundation maintain local chapters here in Tidewater run entirely by volunteers who care about the environment. Hometown groups, like Elizabeth River Project and Lynnhaven River Now, encourage the community to get outside and work together to help clean up our waterways. These family-friendly organizations are helping young hearts develop a passion for the outdoors. After all, it’s our children who will one day be responsible for caring for the planet.

No one wants to swim in dirty water or inhale smelly, smoky air. Kids shouldn’t have to sift through cigarette butts while playing at the beach. But the environment won’t take care of itself. Let’s take a look at how you can help.

Since April 2014, parents in Tidewater have volunteered their time with Moms Clean Air Force (MCAF) to lessen the impact of climate change locally. The organization fights global warming “by supporting policies that will reduce carbon emissions and decrease dangerous co-pollutants,” according to their website.

Founded in February 2011, Moms Clean Air Force, led by co-founder and senior director Dominique Browning, boasts hundreds of thousands of members across the country who are dedicated to protecting children’s right to clean air. While defending the Clean Air Act, they also target global warming, air quality protection, and toxic substances.

The organization arranges play-ins and Mama Summits, where kids play and parents meet with delegates to discuss how air quality issues affect families. The local chapter of MCAF has participated in multiple events outside Tidewater, but the group held its first local play-in on Sunday, Sept. 20, at Mount Trashmore Park.

Over 70 people registered to attend the event, but even more families stopped by throughout the day for children’s activities like Zumbini (Zumba for kids) with Wendy Jaffe, yoga with Little Lotus Yoga, and live entertainment from Little Rockstars preschool music instructors. Parents and kids cooled off in the summer heat with snow cones from the Kona Ice truck, while hungry folks enjoyed Korean tacos from Seoul 757 food truck. Families bounced inflatable balls with a globe parachute, and kids learned how to hula-hoop. Overall, the local play-in was an exciting inaugural event for MCAF.

Alden Cleanthes, 34, who lives in Chesapeake, is one of over 3,400 local MCAF members stepping up to help kids learn about the environment. Alden, who co-owns Creative Art and Design Studios with her husband Carl, is considered one of the group’s “super-moms,” donating much of her time to outreach and attending events and even drop-by meetings with local delegates. She also brings her 3-year-old son, Zarek, to many of the MCAF events.

“So many people want to change, but they don’t know that they have to tell the right people, so we give them an opportunity to show up and do that,” said Alden.

The group focuses on family-friendly activities, ensuring that members have child care during meetings and events and that parents have an opportunity to be involved even if they have to stay home with the kids. Terra Pascarosa, regional manager for Moms Clean Air Force, calls it “naptime activism,” a way for full-time parents to take action, perhaps while the kids are napping, to go online and participate through petitions about methane, smog, or even indoor air quality in schools.

“For any working mom, [MCAF] is a dream come true,” said Terra. “I have never worked with an organization that cares so much about children and family.”

Families in Norfolk and Portsmouth have been working hard to preserve the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River, one of the river’s most polluted sections.

In the early 1990s, a casual conversation around a kitchen table about the polluted state of the river led to the formation of the non-profit Elizabeth River Project. Through years of hard work, volunteers have already helped restore more than 50 wetlands and reintroduced several species of fish to the river.

Sarah Sumoski, the education and recreation program manager for ERP, encourages kids to be excited about the outdoors and the wildlife they might encounter. She enjoys seeing them visit Paradise Creek Nature Park, a 40-acre waterfront park along the river and says that at first kids can be a bit scared to spend time in the park.

“I grew up in nature so to see a kid go from being terrified to not wanting to leave the park is great,” she said.

The Elizabeth River Project hosted its 5th Annual Elizabeth Riverfest on September 12, at Nauticus in Norfolk. One of the biggest events that ERP hosts, Riverfest gives families the opportunity to take free tours of the eastern river branch and learn about wildlife in the river through underwater cameras. Kids learn through hands-on activities, including building buoys and scavenger hunts, or aboard the Learning Barge, a wetland classroom and “America’s Greenest Vessel,” powered by sun and wind.

ERP has also implemented a River Stars Program to encourage the local community to do their part in restoring the river. Industries, schools, and homes can help out by picking up pet waste, reducing plastic consumption, planting wetland marsh grasses, and more. Through the program, River Stars has already restored or conserved more than 1,300 acres of wildlife habitat and reduced pollution by 311 million pounds since 1997.

For Sarah, the biggest challenge is informing people about ERP. “If they haven’t heard about us, then they should certainly find a way to learn more,” she said. “We offer a ton of things for all ages that are really beneficial for families, individuals, kids, and everybody.”

Once a month, a group of dedicated families—members of the local chapter of Surfrider Foundation—meet to clean up our local beaches. Like other Surfrider chapters across the country, they are dedicated to preserving our oceans and the wildlife within through volunteer efforts, as well as through petitions and campaigns that encourage healthier practices.

A national non-profit organization, Surfrider Foundation was founded in 1984 in Malibu, California. The organization now maintains over 50,000 members and 90 chapters worldwide. Each local chapter is run entirely by volunteers. The Virginia Beach chapter has brought awareness to the community through exciting fundraising, educational, and social events.

Rob Gomez, chair for the Virginia Beach chapter, shares his passion for the beach with his son, 17, and daughter, 14. He said he moved back to the area after living elsewhere for 25 years. “I wanted [my kids] to grow up in appreciation for the ocean,” he said. “I wanted to give back to the community, so I started working with the Surfriders.”

Besides beach cleanups, the Surfriders also host several family-friendly events, such as movie nights and petition drives. They also test for water quality. They’ve even planted dune grass to protect the beaches from big storms and maintain a healthy dune system. The Surfriders also host adult-oriented activities, such as the upcoming Butts, Brews, and the Undead event on Nov. 1, cleaning up cigarette butts while enjoying drinks from  bars around Virginia Beach.

According to Rob and vice-chair Addie Abcede, the community takes notice of their efforts. “We’ve had cleanups where people will thank you if they’re walking along the beach,” Rob said. “For me, it’s about changing behaviors.”

Their next project will be building ocean-friendly gardens to reduce urban water runoff at Seatack Elementary School on October 10. These gardens, made up of native plants free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, apply CPR (Conservation, Permeability, and Retention) to filter pollutants. The soil soaks up pollutants like a sponge and prevents them from reaching the ocean and affecting wildlife.

Addie, a 10-year member, hopes to do similar projects at different schools in Tidewater. For her, seeing kids and families care about preserving waterways is most rewarding. Setting up ocean-friendly gardens is “something neighborhoods, schools, and homes can do,” she said. “If there’s a park nearby that needs some work, families from those neighborhoods can work together and have their own ocean-friendly garden.”

The Surfriders are currently urging Virginia Beach City Council to change their pro-stance on offshore drilling. Offshore drilling not only directly interferes with the natural environment and wildlife inhabitants, but also poses a huge risk of causing an oil spill in the future. Instead, the group hopes to move the community towards solar and wind resources. 

“I think we have a responsibility to take care of the ocean,” said Rob. “This city relies on tourism. It’s up to us to take care of it and make sure that it’s there for the next generation.” 

Consider volunteering with one of these local environmental organizations:

• Lynnhaven River Now

• Moms Clean Air Force Hampton Roads:

• Elizabeth River Project:

• Paradise Creek Nature Park:

• Virginia Beach Surfrider Foundation:

Stephanie Allen

Stephanie Allen is the Content Manager & columnist for Tidewater Family Plus. She is a proud Navy wife and mom, a writer, blogger, success coach, and the Communications and Marketing Director for the Military Spouse Advocacy Network. Follow her on Instagram!

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